I was driving through downtown Regina the other week, down Victoria Avenue, and had to stop for two Canada geese taking their sweet time crossing the road during rush hour traffic.
At least they had the good sense to use the pedestrian crosswalk.
This got me wondering why these geese, which didn’t have any goslings, don’t just fly across the road, rather than risk getting struck by a car. In turn, this led me to do some reading on Canada geese. Like most animals in our own backyard, it turns out they are more interesting than one would think.
Why didn’t the geese fly across the road?
Apparently, for six weeks during the summer, over June and July, Canada geese feathers molt—their old feathers fall out, and new ones come in. This replaces damaged or broken feathers.
Canada geese are vulnerable to predators and cars during this period because they can’t fly.
A predator-free environment. Geese will typically retreat to the water to get away from predators when they can’t fly. So why geese would be in downtown Regina during this time, where there is no water, is beyond me. Except for maybe that there aren’t really any predators, like coyotes, downtown. And vehicles generally stop for geese.
Big city geese. Canada geese tend to rule certain places in the summer, or at least it sometimes feels that way. For instance, Wascana Park in Regina, is a favourite Canada goose haunt because there are few(er) predators in an urban park.
About 10,000 Canada geese stop in Wascana each year. Some will continue further north to other locations, while others stay for the summer.
Opting in to the zoo. Canada geese also nest at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, where a scoop is kept in volunteer headquarters so goose droppings can be picked up by those donating their time there. This is an important job, because each goose eats four pounds of grass each day, and produces two pounds of poop.
The tiger and the Canada goose. A zoo keeper in Winnipeg told me one foolish goose got into the tiger enclosure, making one tiger very happy to eat it for a snack.
A gang of geese. Canada geese seem to be everywhere in the summer. And if it feels like they travel in gangs, that’s because they do. Young geese, once independent from their parents, hang out together, and these groups are called “gang broods” and can be 100 birds strong.
A Canada goose isn’t just any Canada goose. There are 11 subspecies. (They all look the same to me though. Biology wasn’t my strongest subject in high school though).
- Eastern Manitoba and the southern Hudson Bay Area have the subspecies the Interior Canada Goose.
- There is also the Giant Canada Goose subspecies that summers in Saskatchewan, as well as in western and central Manitoba. They can way between 14 and 20 pounds.
- There is also the Lesser Canada Goose that breeds in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Some biologists don’t think this is a subspecies. It could be a hybrid of two other subspecies having bred.
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Fifty shades of grey. A main way to tell these subspecies apart is by how dark the grey is on their chest. For instance, the Interior Canada Goose has a medium grey breast, compared to the Giant Canada Goose , which has a lighter grey chest, as well as a white spot above their eyes.
A Canada Goose that isn’t a Canada Goose. The Cackling Goose, which also passes through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, looks exactly like a Canada goose, but has a shorter neck and is generally smaller. They are a little larger than a Mallard after they are fully grown. The Canada goose also has a deeper, throatier honk than the Cackling Goose.
They grow up so fast. Baby geese learn to swim within a day of hatching and can dive 30 to 40 feet under water. They also hatch knowing how to forage for food so their parents don’t need to feed them.
Learning to fly. Parent geese teach their young how to fly when the goslings are two to three months old. These babies stay with their parents for the first year of their life and migrate that year as a family… and then, as I said above, the youth go onto link up with other young adults to form gangs.
Size matters. Canada geese don’t start looking for a mate until they’re two or three years old. They generally look to partner up with another bird that’s about the same size as themselves. This is called assortative mating.
Low divorce rate. Canada geese mate for life, which means a couple can be together for 10 to 25 years. Some geese do break up, but it’s rare. And if their partner dies, the remaining goose will try to find a new one, although not without a prolonged mourning period. A widowed goose in Toronto recently brought people to tears, since they could see how devastated it was after its spouse was hit by a vehicle.
Survivors. There are a lot of birds on the endangered species list, but Canada geese aren’t one of them. They thrive in man-made environments. They prefer mowed lawns because they can see predators coming, and they like new grass growth. They also like eating roots and tubers and feed on various seeds and waste cereal grains, which is why you’ll see them hanging out in farmers’ fields.
Fighters. Canada geese are also successful because they are good at fighting predators and unfortunate humans that get too close. Most goose attacks on humans result in minor or no injuries, but severe injuries can happen. Some goose attacks have resulted in broken bones and head trauma. People also hurt themselves while trying to run away from a goose, by tripping and falling or twisting an ankle. If a goose has its neck stretched out and is hissing, that’s a sign to step way back before it attacks.
Near extinction? In the early 1900s we almost wiped out the Giant Canada Geese. In fact, scientists thought they were extinct for decades. Their numbers dwindled because of unregulated hunting, egg collecting and habitat destruction.
They’re back. In the 1960s, a small population of this subspecies was found in Minnesota. Other isolated populations were also located and conservationists were able to improve the numbers through various restoration efforts. Now there are about four million of them in North America, and this type of Canada goose is usually the last to leave in the winter.
Why do geese migrate? Canada geese need open water to swim away from predators, as well as for food, so when the lakes freeze over, it’s time to move on.
Long-distance travellers. Migrating geese will fly more than 3,200 kilometres, if they have to, in order to get to open water. That’s about the distance between Calgary and Toronto.
Weather permitting, Canada geese can fly 2,400 kilometres a day. Geese, like airplanes, have certain weather limitations when it comes to flying. If your plane is grounded due to bad weather, chances are the geese are grounded too.
Speed demons. Canada geese can fly up to 64 km/hr. A strong tailwind can help them reach speeds of 112 km/hr.
Group think. Canada geese will migrate in groups of 30 to 100 birds.
Why the “V”? It’s believed the front bird breaks the headwind, and the birds behind it can drift along the airflow from the front. Canada geese take turns in the lead position to help any one goose from becoming too tired.
Honkers. Geese communicate when migrating by honking. I personally tend to associate honking with spring and fall. Honks from above are a sign the seasons are changing on the Prairies.
When do geese lay eggs? Canada geese can lay eggs in the Prairies as early as late March.
Goose banding. If you see a Canada goose that’s banded, that’s so scientists can track them and find out how old they live. The oldest Canada goose in North America lived to 33-years-old.
Herding geese. If you’re wondering how geese are banded, people literally herd them like sheep into a pen, and then somehow manage to pick them up, turn them upside down, and put a band on the goose’s ankle without losing any fingers. You can watch a video of geese being banded here.
Hunting Canada geese. Banding lets conservation officers understand how many birds are being hunted each year and where they are being harvested. For instance, in 2009, 1,077 birds were banded in Wascana Park and by the following year, they found that 7.6 per cent of those birds had been hunted. Across North America, some 2.6 million Canada Geese are harvested by hunters every year. That sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t affect their overall numbers. They are a very successful species, even with human interference.
Migration habits. Scientists can use the bands to track the birds migration habits. The geese that summer in Wascana, like to spend December through March either in North Dakota or Nebraska. I would have thought somewhere a little further south, and warmer, but geese only need a patch of open water to be happy, not necessarily balmy weather.
Year-round residents. On Wascana Lake, and other places around the Prairies, some Canada geese will stay year round because some water remains open. At Wascana, it’s because of aerators in the man-made lake.
The Canada goose dilemma. Because Canada geese are so successful as a species, they could easily overtake an urban park like Wascana, which is why parks usually have a plan to manage the population numbers, so both humans and geese can enjoy the shared space.
Mitigation measures include putting fences around flower beds to keep geese from destroying them, relocating younger geese to more northern remote places, like Cumberland Lake in Saskatchewan, so those geese will make that area their new permanent breeding grounds. (They’ve been relocating geese successfully at Wascana Park for 40 years).
Egg tampering. Park staff will also put mineral oil on eggs, making them unviable. Poking a hole in the egg also makes them unviable. One wants the female to continue sitting on the unviable eggs, otherwise a new breeding pair will move in.
Goose real estate. Good nesting spots are prime real estate for Canada geese. They literally fight over the best spots in the spring.
Limited feeding. Certain areas of the park, like around flower beds, may be non-feeding areas, meaning park visitors aren’t allowed to feed the geese in those spots. (And people aren’t supposed to feed birds bread anymore.)
Birds of prey. In Winnipeg a sound system is being used to play loud birds of prey calls in an effort to ward off Canada geese at Memorial Park. Scientists suspect the geese will eventually wise up to this and realize there are no birds of prey around ,and ignore the recording.
For their own good. Controlling the Canada geese population isn’t just because us humans hate stepping in goose poop. It’s also because if their populations get out of control, it’s bad for them. Overcrowding leads to diseases, and there is only so much prime breeding real estate. Unlucky geese unable to secure a spot on a lawn will be pushed to nest on roof tops, using plastic and other garbage to build nests, which is no way for them to live.
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