Honkers

Canada Geese and their goslings at Trinity Lake.

The noisy honking and the long “V” shaped formations signify spring and fall for me. But did you know that with more and more lawns and golf courses across California and North America, Canada Geese are choosing to stay put in greater and greater numbers? Canada Geese are one of the most recognizable birds we have. Their black heads and necks with a white chin strap are unmistakable, and they are easy to see because of their size. Their wingspan ranges from 43-60 inches.

It depends on the book you look at, but there are several subspecies of Canada Goose. Some books estimate 11 species, while others consider the four smallest forms, the Cackling Geese, to be a different species all together. Canada Geese are found, at least seasonally, over most of North America. One generalization is that Canada Geese get smaller the further north you go and they get darker as you go westward. It also appears that they are not migrating as far south in the winter as they once did. This is thought to be based on more food available to them further north and changes in climate.

Canada Geese form strong bonds within their family unit, which includes the mated pair and their goslings. We all have seen the young following in a close line behind a parent. Most of us are familiar with duck and geese young imprinting on the first likely parent they see after hatching. It appears that this happens in the first 13 to 16 hours after hatching. This bond stays strong all the way from fall migration through winter and spring migration. The yearlings return with their parents to the breeding grounds, which often is the exact same location as the previous year. Once the parents begin to build a nest and mate, the yearlings will break away, often joining a group of other yearlings. They don’t begin to breed until they are 2 to 4 years old. While male and female “honkers” have the same plumage, you can distinguish the male from the female. The male usually is the larger of the two and stands more erect, acting as the sentry and family defender.

The goslings are precocial. That means that as soon as they hatch, they are active. They can run around and they maintain their own body temperature. This is different from songbirds with their naked hatchlings that have to be incubated to stay warm. The parents watch after and protect their young and lead them to good feeding grounds, but they don’t feed the young.

Geese mostly feed on grasses and other tender herbs in the spring and summer and shift to berries and seeds in the fall and winter. Where there is a lot of agriculture, like the rice growing areas in the Sacramento Valley, they will focus on leftover grains in the fields. A couple of subspecies have adapted to lawns and eat those grasses in urban and suburban environments year-round.

Canada Geese build a nest of grasses lined with the females feathers on the ground. They choose sites that give them a good view to watch out for predators and oftentimes, if they have the opportunity, they will build a nest on a grassy island. That is the case with a pair of geese that has been nesting for a number of years at the Weaver Basin Wetland below the Performing Arts Center. We designed the placement of that island for just this purpose. The female incubates 2-8 eggs while her mate stands guard. He is very territorial and will strongly defend the nest and his young with aggressive head-pumping, beak open and hissing.

Migrating flocks are made up of different family groups and the V-formation is led by an experienced adult, often a female. They fly anytime, day or night. The male is called a gander and the female a goose.

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