Canada Goose (Part 1) | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
A chapter from the electronic book: Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

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Canada Goose (Part 1 of 2)
Branta canadensis

[Published in 1925: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 130 (Part 2): 204-223]

The common wild goose is the most widely distributed and the most generally well known of any of our wild fowl. From the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Gulf of Mexico nearly to the Arctic coast it may be seen at some season of the year, and when once seen its grandeur creates an impression on the mind which even the casual observer never forgets. As the clarion notes float downward on the still night air, who can resist the temptation to rush out of doors and peer into the darkness for a possible glimpse at the passing flock, as the shadowy forms glide over our roofs on their long journey? Or, even in daylight, what man so busy that he will not pause and look upward at the serried ranks of our grandest wild fowl, as their well-known honking notes announce their coming and their going, he knows not whence or whither? It is an impressive sight well worthy of his gaze; perhaps he will even stop to count the birds in the two long converging lines; he is sure to tell his friends about it, and perhaps it will even be published in the local paper, as a harbinger of spring or a foreboding of winter. Certainly the Canada goose commands respect.

Spring.--The Canada goose is one of the earliest of the water birds to migrate in the spring. Those which have wintered farthest south are the first to feel the migratory impulse, and they start about a month earlier than those which have wintered at or above the frost line, moving slowly at first but with a gradually increasing rate of speed. Prof. Wells W. Cooke (1906) has shown, from his mass of accumulated records, that beginning with an average rate of 9 miles a day, between the lowest degrees of latitude, the speed is gradually increased through successive stages to an average rate of 30 miles a day during the last part of the journey. Following, as it does, close upon the heels of retreating ice and snow, the migration of these geese may well be regarded as a harbinger of spring; for the same reason it is quite variable from year to year and quite dependent on weather conditions.

The first signs of approaching spring come early in the far south, with the lengthening of the days and the increasing warmth of the sun; the wild geese are the first to appreciate these signs and the first to feel the restless impulse to be gone; they congregate in flocks and show their uneasiness by their constant gabbling and honking, as if talking over plans for their journey, with much preening and oiling of feathers in the way of preparation; at length a flock or two may be seen mounting into the air and starting off northward, headed by the older and stronger birds, the veterans of many a similar trip; flock after flock joins the procession, until the last have gone, leaving their winter homes deserted and still. The old ganders know the way and lead their trustful flocks by the straightest and safest route; high in the air, with the earth spread out below them like a map, they follow no coast line, no mountain chain, and no river valley; but directly onward over hill and valley, river and lake, forest and plain, city, town, and country, their course points straight to their summer homes. Flying by night or by day, as circumstances require, they stop only when necessary to rest or feed, and then only in such places as their experienced leaders know to be safe. A thick fog may bewilder them and lead them to disaster or a heavy snowstorm may make them turn back, but soon they are on their way again, and ultimately they reach their breeding grounds in safety.

Courtship.--The older geese are paired for life, and many of the younger birds, which are mating for the first time, conduct their courtship and perhaps select their mates before they start on their spring migration. Audubon (1840) gives a graphic account of the courtship of the Canada goose, as follows:

It is extremely amusing to witness the courtship of the Canada goose in all its stages; and let me assure you, reader, that although a gander does not strut before his beloved with the pomposity of a turkey, or the grace of a dove, his ways are quite as agreeable to the female of his choice. I can imagine before me one who has just accomplished the defeat of another male after a struggle of half an hour or more. He advances gallantly toward the object of contention, his head scarcely raised an inch from the ground, his bill open to its full stretch, his fleshy tongue elevated, his eyes darting fiery glances, and as he moves he hisses loudly, while the emotion which he experiences causes his quills to shake and his feathers to rustle. Now he is close to her who in his eyes is all loveliness; his neck bending gracefully in all directions, passes all round her, and occasionally touches her body; and as she congratulates him on his victory, and acknowledges his affection, they move their necks in a hundred curious ways. At this moment fierce jealousy urges the defeated gander to renew his efforts to obtain his love; he advances apace, his eye glowing with the fire of rage; he shakes his broad wings, ruffles up his whole plumage, and as he rushes on the foe hisses with the intensity of anger. The whole flock seems to stand amazed, and opening up a space, the birds gather round to view the combat. The bold bird who has been caressing his mate, scarcely deigns to take notice of his foe, but seems to send a scornful glance toward him. He of the mortified feelings, however, raises his body, half opens his sinewy wings, and with a powerful blow, sends forth his defiance. The affront can not be borne in the presence of so large a company, nor indeed is there much disposition to bear it in any circumstances; the blow is returned with vigor, the aggressor reels for a moment, but he soon recovers, and now the combat rages. Were the weapons more deadly, feats of chivalry would now be performed; as it is, thrust and blow succeed each other like the strokes of hammers driven by sturdy forgers. But now, the mated gander has caught hold of his antagonist's head with his bill; no bulldog can cling faster to his victim; he squeezes him with all the energy of rage, lashes him with his powerful wings and at length drives him away, spreads out his pinions, runs with joy to his mate and fills the air with cries of exultation.

Nesting.--Reaching their breeding grounds early in the season and being in most cases already paired, these geese are naturally among the earliest breeders; their eggs are usually hatched and the nests deserted before many of the other wild fowl have even laid their eggs, the dates varying of course with the latitude. When I visited North Dakota in 1901 there were still quite a number of Canada geese breeding there; probably many of them have since been driven farther west or north, as they love solitude and retirement during the nesting season. We found them nesting on the islands in the lakes and in the marshy portions of the sloughs, building quite different nests in the two locations. On May 31 we found a nest on an island in Stump Lake, which had evidently been deserted for some time; the island was also occupied by nesting colonies of double-crested cormorants and ring-billed gulls and by a few breeding ducks; the goose nest was merely a depression in the bare ground among some scattered large stones lined with a few sticks and straws and a quantity of down. In a large slough in Nelson County we found, on June 2, a deserted nest containing 3 addled eggs, the broken shells of those that had hatched being scattered about the nest. It was in a shallow portion of the slough where the dead flags had been beaten down flat for a space 50 feet square. The nest was a bulky mass of dead flags, 3 feet in diameter and but slightly hollowed in the center. Within a few yards of this, and of a similar nest found on June 10, was an occupied redhead's nest; the proximity of these two ducks' nests to those of the geese may have been merely accidental, but the possibility is suggested that they may have been so placed to gain the protection of the larger birds. This suggestion was strengthened when I saw a skunk foraging in the vicinity; undoubtedly these animals find an abundant food supply in the numerous nests of ducks and coots in these sloughs.

Somewhat similar nests were found by our party in Saskatchewan, including two beautiful nests on an island in Crane Lake, found on June 2, 1905. The largest of these was in an open grassy place on the island, about 25 yards from the open shore; it consisted of a great mass of soft down, "drab gray" in color, measuring 16 inches in outside diameter, 7 inches inside, and 4 inches in depth; it was very conspicuous and contained 6 eggs. As I approached it and when about a hundred yards from it, the goose walked deliberately from the nest to the shore and began honking; her mate, away off on the lake answered her and she flew out to join him. Both of these nests had been robbed earlier in the season and the birds had laid second sets.

According to Milton S. Ray (1912) the Canada goose nests quite commonly at Lake Tahoe in California; he found a number of nests there in 1910 and 1911. The nesting habits in this region are not very different from what we noted in northwest Canada. Referring to the nests found in 1910, Mr. Ray writes:

Anxious to learn something of their nesting habits, and hoping I might be in time to find a nest or so, May 23 found me rowing up the fresh-water sloughs of the marsh, unmindful of the numerous terns, blackbirds, and other swamp denizens, in my quest for a prospective home of the goose. Nor was I long without reward, for when about 100 feet from a little island that boasted of a few lodge-pole pine saplings and one willow, a goose rose from her nest, took a short run, and rising with heavy flight and loud cries, flew out to open water, where she was joined by her mate. The cries of the pair echoed so loudly over the marsh that it seemed the whole region must be awakened. Landing on the island I found on the ground, at the edge of the willow, a large built-up nest with 7 almost fresh eggs. The nest was composed wholly of dry marsh grasses and down, and measured 22 inches over all, while the cavity was 11 inches across and 3 inches deep.

After a row of several miles I noticed a gander in the offing, whose swimming in circles and loud honking gave assurance that the nesting precincts of another pair had been invaded. A heavily timbered island, now close at hand, seemed the most probable nesting place. This isle was so swampy that most of the growth had been killed, and fallen trees, other impediments, and the icy water, made progress difficult. I had advanced but a short distance, however, when a goose flushed from her nest at the foot of a dead tree. This nest was very similar to the first one found and, like it, also held 7 eggs, but these were considerably further along in incubation. On the homeward journey, while returning through the marsh by a different channel, I beheld the snake-like head of a goose above the tall grass (for the spring had been unusually early) on a level tract some distance away. Approaching nearer, the bird took flight, and on reaching the spot I found my third nest. As it contained 5 eggs all on the point of hatching, I lost no time in allowing the parent to return.

Of his experiences the following year, he says:

I found the goose colony to consist of but a single nest, placed on the bare rock at the foot of a giant Jeffrey pine near the water's edge. It was made entirely of pine needles, with the usual down lining, and held an addled egg, while numerous shells lay strewn about. The parents were noticed about half a mile down the bay. Two days later at Rowlands Marsh I located another goose nest with the small compliment of 2 eggs, 1 infertile and 1 from which the chick was just emerging. The nest was placed against a fallen log, and besides the lining of down was composed entirely of chips of pine bark, a quantity of which lay near. From the variety of material used in the composition of the nests found, it seems evident that the birds have little or no preference for any particular substance, but use that most easily available.

A long day's work at the marsh on June 9 revealed three more nests. The first of these, one with 6 eggs, well incubated, was the most perfectly built nest of the goose that I have ever seen, being constructed with all the care that most of the smaller birds exercise. It was made principally of dry marsh grasses. The second nest held a set of 5 eggs and was placed by a small willow on a little mound of earth rising in a tule patch in a secluded portion of the swamp. Dry tules entered largely into its composition. In this instance the bird did not rise until we were within 25 feet, although they usually flushed at a distance varying from 40 to 100 feet.

In the Rocky Mountain regions of Colorado and Montana the Canada goose has been known to build its nest, sometimes for successive seasons, on rocky ledges or cliffs at some distance from any water or even at a considerable height. In the northwestern portions of the country it frequently nests in trees using the old nests of ospreys, hawks, or other large birds; it apparently does not build any such nest for itself, but sometimes repairs the nest by bringing in twigs and lining it with down. John Fannin (1894) says that in the Okanogan district of British Columbia, "Canada geese are particularly noted for nesting in trees and as these valleys are subject to sudden inundation during early spring, this fact may have something to do with it." He also relates the following interesting incident:

Mr. Charles deB. Green, who spends a good deal of his spare time in making collections for the Museum, writes me from Kettle River, Okanogan district, British Columbia, to the effect that while climbing to an osprey's nest he was surprised to find his actions resented by not only the ospreys but also by a pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), the latter birds making quite a fuss all the time Mr. Green was in the tree. On reaching the nest he was still further surprised to find 2 osprey eggs and 3 of the Canada goose. He took the 2 osprey's eggs and 2 of the geese eggs. This was on the 1st of May. On the 12th of May he returned and found the osprey setting on the goose egg; the geese were nowhere in sight. Mr. Green took the remaining egg and sent the lot to the Museum.

A. D. Henderson has sent me the following notes on the nesting habits of the Canada goose, in the Peace River region of northern Alberta as follows:

The geese breed on the small gravelly islands in the Battle River and its two tributaries, known at that time as the Second and Third Battle Rivers. Another favorite breeding place is in old beaver dams, where they nest on the old sunken beaver houses which in course of time have flattened down into small grass-covered islets. Even inhabited beaver houses are used as nesting sites, as my hunting partner, on one of our trips, took 5 eggs from a nest on a large beaver house in an old river bed of the Third Battle, which we repeatedly saw entered and left by a family of beaver, showing that the geese and beaver live together in unity.

On May 18 I found a nest containing 7 eggs on a low grassy islet, probably a very old beaver house, in the same flooded beaver meadow. The nest was made of grass lined with finer grasses and feathers. The sitting bird permitted a near approach, with her head and neck stretched out straight in front of her and lying flat along the ground, watching my approach. This appears to be the usual behavior when the nest is approached during incubation. We saw two other nests on this day, one on a small grassy islet in the same beaver meadow, containing 3 eggs, and another on an island in the Third Battle with 6 eggs.