Common Name: Canada Goose, Bernache du Canada (French), Ganso canadiense (Spanish) – The
word goose has deep etymological roots in Sanskrit as hamsa which became the Latin anser. In the Germanic languages, the root is gans from which the Old English gos is derived. As the bird is indigenous to North America with a larger presence in the northern reaches, Canada indicates its provenance.
Scientific Name: Branta canadensis – The generic name is a Latinized version of the word brant, which is a synonym for goose. Brant (sometimes spelled brent) is thought to derive from the Middle English word brende meaning brindled, having a gray or tawny coat with dark streaks or spots; the dark head and neck of the goose are the brindled contrast to the dorsal feathers. The specific name is a Latinized form of Canada.
Potpourri: There are twelve subspecies of the Canada Goose, with some numerical variance depending on an on-going taxonomic debate among ornithologists. The different species vary in size and in geographical range but all share the same basic characteristic dark and contrasting plumage. In general, Canada geese get smaller toward northern ranges and darker toward western ranges. Their names are primarily associated with habitat and include the Western, Atlantic, Interior, Vancouver and Aleutian subspecies. The smallest Canada Goose is now known as the Cackling Goose and is considered by the American Ornithologist Union to be a separate species (B. hutchinsii). Canada geese are at the top of all wildlife watching lists and are the second most hunted of waterfowl species. They exist in 49 of the 50 United States and in every province and territory of Canada.
The plangent honking and the unique “V” pattern of passing Canada geese is a harbinger of the changing seasons, their over flight marking the passage of time. They have accordingly been the subject of whimsical inspiration, as evinced by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac:
“My notes tell me I have seen a thousand geese this fall. Every one of these in the course of their epic journey from the arctic to the gulf has on one occasion or another probably served man in some equivalent of paid entertainment. One flock perhaps has thrilled a score of school boys, and sent them scurrying home with tales of high adventure. Another, passing overhead on a dark night, has serenaded a whole city with goose music, and awakened who knows what questionings and memories and hopes. A third perhaps has given pause to some farmer at his plow, and brought new thoughts of farmlands and journeyings (sic) and peoples, where before was only drudgery …”
The actual reason for the “V” arrangement is not known, the most plausible theories include: to take advantage of the aerodynamics of the trailing vortices of the wingtip of each bird to reduce the drag on the next bird and so on down the line; to provide a recognizable pattern for geese on the ground who can then elect to participate in the migration; and to allow for an unobstructed view of the ground and possible landing areas by all of the participants. The lead goose is not the strongest or the smartest; the lead often changes to offset fatigue. When the geese of the V formation get to their destination, small groups peel off and land together in separate enclaves; these groups are the family units of mating pairs and their offspring who are reestablishing their communal association in the new location.
Canada Geese are monogamous with clannish familial behavioral characteristics; the female goose and the male gander are mates for life. In early spring, a bowl-shaped nest is fashioned from local vegetation and lined with the down feathers plucked from the breast of the female; it is usually situated close to open water to provide a haven from predators. Eggs are subsequently laid at the rate of about one egg every day or two until a clutch of about 5 is ready for incubation as a group, the delay to ensure a near simultaneous hatch-out about 30 days later. The goslings are mobile within 24 hours of hatching and are almost immediately introduced to the adjacent pool for swimming instruction. The two adults watch over their clutch for about 10 weeks until the goslings are large enough to sustain flight. If several families are located in close proximity, groups of adults will combine their broods into a mass of goslings called a crèche to provide a higher level of communal protection. The term crèche is a British term for a day nursery for foundlings. The young stay with the parents for the first year. Interestingly, not all couples are heterosexual; same sex partners also form long term relationships.
The subspecies that has become established in the mid-Atlantic region is the Giant Canada Goose, B. canadensis maxima. It originally inhabited the prairies of middle North America, having evolved to eschew migration, traveling only short distances necessitated by food availability and life cycle. The Antaean subspecies was thought to be extinct by the middle of the 20th Century due to a population decline precipitated by over-hunting and a coincident loss of preferential wetland habitat. In 1962, a small flock was discovered in a pond near Rochester, Minnesota by Harold Hansen of the Illinois Natural History Survey. His book The Giant Canada Goose is the seminal work on the subject. After Hansen’s discovery, actions were initiated at the state level to protect the largest of the Canada geese from extinction. Hunting regulations were made more uniform and enforcement more consistent. The institution of national wildlife refuges provided habitats for regeneration and recovery. Other contributors to the resurgence were socio-economic: the clearing of forests for farmland created more open areas favored as a habitat; the prevalence of cereal grain crops that were harvested by mechanical devices resulted in more waste grain for their refection.
The Giant Canada Goose does not migrate over great distances but will travel regionally according to the availability of food and to seek safe haven; during middle to late summer, all waterfowl undergo a complete replacement of all of their flight feathers, a process known as a molt that can take up to a month. Without their complete aerodynamic ensemble, the geese are unable to fly for long distances and must accordingly find a palladium that has adequate food, a body of water and few trees for predator concealment. The fact that this is a good description of a golf course has set the stage for the collision between the once endangered Branta canadensis maxima and its historic nemesis Homo sapiens.
The breeding success of the Giant Canada Goose has created a festering health risk. One of the primary problems with the Giant Canada Geese is that they are primarily herbivores; they graze in large groups on the tender new shoots of grass, clover, aquatic plants and agricultural crops, the latter when the plants first emerge after planting. They can thus invoke irreparable harm to grasslands and threaten the economic viability of a crop harvest. The high levels of ingestion result in high levels of excretion; an adult Canada Goose can produce 1.5 pounds of feces per day. Their emunctory efficacy has been linked to high fecal coliform counts at Pennsylvania State Park beaches and to eutrophication of small, restricted circulation pools. There are also safety issues. The FAA estimates that the Canada Goose is responsible for 35 percent of all bird-airplane collisions, amounting to 240 goose-plane impacts. In 1995, a US Air Force AWACS plane ingested 13 Canada Geese, crashed, and killed all 24 crew members, destroying the $184 Million aircraft.
Efforts to limit the pernicious proliferation of the Canada Goose include husbandry controls, non-lethal and lethal methods. Husbandry controls consist of the elimination of preferable habitats and the use of bait stations to protect agricultural crops. Non-lethal methods consist of scare tactics such as noise makers, dogs, and visual devices that ward off the geese and physical deterrents, such as fences near water and wire grids over ponds to prevent landing. Lethal methods consist of hunting the adult geese and oiling, shaking or puncturing goose eggs. Unless the eggs are returned to the nest or dummy eggs are used, the mating pair will start another nest. Recreational hunting is not possible in the suburban areas that the geese prefer. The only remaining option is to capture the geese and attempt relocation or to send them to USDA processing plants for use in food banks.