Canada and Cackling Goose

Bird of the Month: Canada and Cackling Goose

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Canada Goose)

PC: Mick Thompson (Canada Goose)

Scientific Name: Branta canadensis and Branta hutchinsii minina

Length 25-45 in 25 in

Wingspan 43-60 in 43 in

Weight: 3.5-9.8 lb 3.5 lb


Mitochondrial DNA study of the Canada Goose has resulted in two matriarchal size-related species of very similar looking geese.  The Canada Goose is now the larger-bodied group which breeds in mid-range latitudes of the northern hemisphere.  The Cackling Goose is the smaller-bodied group which breeds in the tundra region.  Scientists estimate that the two groups have bred separately for about one million years . The geese exhibit philopatry, the behavior of returning to the same area to breed, which has made the research process manageable. 

The Cackling Goose is about the size of the smallest Canada Goose and has created a new identification problems for birders. The Cackling Goose has a short neck and very small bill and is found in western North America.  The Canada Goose has a longer neck and bill and can be found throughout North America (Alderfer). There are seven subspecies recognized in the canadensis species, named after the country, and four in the hutchinsii species, named after Thomas Hutchins, a naturalist (Washburn). The genus Branta is Anglo-Saxon for the burnt color or dark plumage.

Both species exhibit many similar behaviors, the most widely-recognized of which is the characteristic V-shaped pattern of flight during migration. Canada Geese are iconic as harbingers of seasonal change and their honking call still stirs those who hear it even above the din of urban life. Cackling Geese have a higher pitched, squeaking uriik call (Sibley). Canada Geese migration begins in late August and continues through September. Cackling Geese begin migrating in early September with stopovers along the way to the Alaska Peninsula.  From there the Cacklings fly continuously over a two to four-day period directly to Oregon and southwest Washington (Mobray, et al). The smaller Cackling Geese have a longer migration and as a result have longer wings compared to their body size.  This is a useful field mark as the tips of the wings extend beyond the tail.

The geese nest in a variety of habitats including bays, marshes and golf courses throughout central and northern North America. The pairs bond for life and the nest usually has 4-7 eggs which are incubated for about four weeks. The male will actively defend the nest with a display of lowering its head almost to the ground while hissing. The parents will lead the young from the nest at 2-3 days but the new birds will feed themselves. First flight occurs in another 6-7 weeks for the Cackling Geese and 8-9 weeks for the larger Canada Geese.

The populations of Canada and Cackling Geese are increasing and their growth is considered a wildlife management success. Nevertheless, in some urban and suburban areas the geese are considered a nuisance and wildlife managers are being urged to limit further population growth, and in some recreation areas they have implemented removal programs. The geese are popular with hunters with about two million birds harvested each year in the United States.