These familiar waterfowl can be found throughout North America, either residing by lakes or flying in their renowned V-shaped formation.
Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
We keep all kinds of calendars “” both actual and imaginary “” as we explore the natural world. Some are physical calendars that provide fixed dates of natural phenomena such as meteor showers and lunar eclipses, or define the exact days of solstices and equinoxes, marking the beginning of new seasons.
But every time we see Canada geese flying overhead, we are reminded of our personal calendar of seasons, which is much more inexact. For who can know in advance the precise date when the honk-honking, V-shaped squadrons of “Cans” begin to make their way northward?
We live in central California, so that northbound flight occurred several months ago. For many other locations along the migratory flight path of Canada geese, the birds have already reached their nesting grounds. May is the month of nesting on our mental calendar. But if your local geese happened to nest last month, then it’s time for the goslings to begin pecking their way out of their eggs.
We’re fortunate to live where we do, because, as is the case in many parts of the country, we get to experience both migratory and resident Canada geese. Some visit only during the winter months while others stay with us year-round. And there just happen to be two small lakes within walking distance that attract both groups.
Assuming the season is correct, you can tell that there’s a nest nearby if you see a solitary goose just standing around. It’s probably a male (the sexes look alike except for a slight difference in size), and the nesting season is about the only time you’ll see a Canada goose by itself. These birds mate for life and do almost everything together except when the female is incubating eggs. That’s when the male will stand guard.
For most of the year, flocks of Canada geese live and feed side by side. The mated pairs stay together, but they are very social birds, and large flocks are normal. But as the nesting season approaches, the migratory birds leave for the north and those left behind tend to separate into couples. This is when the female starts looking for a nest site “” often the same one she used the previous year “” and the male becomes more and more territorial.
Ideally, the nest site will be near the water but isolated in some way. Small islands are prime locations. The nest will probably be built right on the ground as an open cup of grass, lichen, moss, and other plant materials. But depending upon the situation, a nest may be built in a brushy area if it is not subject to flooding. Normally the nest will contain two to eight eggs, with one being laid each day until the clutch is complete. Only then will the mother goose begin incubation.
For a little less than a month, the female will spend most of her time on the nest while the male stands guard duty. And a Canada goose can be a ferocious guard. First of all, these birds are big. Canada geese come in several subspecies, and the largest, called the giant Canada goose, can weigh up to 20 pounds. But most importantly, they don’t just threaten an intruder. When a nest is approached too closely, they will attack. Unauthorized entry by another male will find the defender using its beak to grab the intruder by the breast while beating it with strong wings that have a span of 6 feet “” something we’d certainly like to avoid.
Because incubation doesn’t start until the last egg is laid, all of the eggs tend to hatch on the same day. The chicks are born covered with down, with their eyes open, and able to move about freely. They are precocial, meaning they are somewhat independent right from the start. If the nest was built a fair distance from water, the parents may lead the chicks to an area closer to water where they will live. The goslings almost immediately begin pecking at small objects and spend most of their time eating and feeding, always under the supervision of the parent birds.
If a disturbance occurs while the birds are swimming, the young chicks instinctively dive under the water and the adult male provides a distraction display. There seems to be so much instant communication between the chicks and their parents after hatching that some speculate the female actually has “talked” to the chicks while they were still in their eggs. Language specialists have discovered as many as 13 specific goose calls that include greetings, warnings, and contentment.
Usually the small family will keep separate from other geese, but occasionally you’ll see 15 or more chicks along with at least one supervising adult. These are called “gang broods.” Such gatherings are unusual and evidently occur more often in the southern part of the birds’ range.
By the summer months, the new generation of geese will look almost exactly like their parents. But the youngsters will stay with their parents for the first year of their lives, spending approximately 12 hours a day eating. If the parents migrate, so do their young. In fact, goose migration is a learned process, so there is almost no interchange between residents who don’t migrate and the migratory birds that may travel as much as 3,000 miles. The resident birds probably don’t know the way (usually being introduced into the area), and they’ve also learned that they don’t have to travel far to earn a living. Assuming the young birds survive their first season, they have a life expectancy of 10 to 20 years. The oldest known wild Canada goose lived to 30 years and four months.
We’ll spend the next few months dropping in on “our” lakes to check up on the local family of Canada geese. The chicks are cute, and as they grow older we keep learning more about goose behavior. And finally, one night in autumn, we’ll hear the honk-honks of the arriving travelers making their way back south. Then it’s time to mark off another season on our personal calendar.