Birds – American White-fronted Goose

(Anser albifrons gambeli)


Length—27 to 30 inches.

Male and Female—Upper part and fore neck brownish gray, the edgings of the feathers lighter; a white band along forehead and base of bill bordered behind by blackish ; lower back, nearest the tail, almost white; wings and tail dusky; sides like the back; breast paler than throat, and marked, like the white under parts, with black blotches; bill pink or pale red; feet yellow; eyes brown. Immature birds, which are darker and browner than adults, lack white on forehead and tail coverts, also the black patches on the under parts.

Range—North America; rare on Atlantic coast; common on the Pacific slope and in the interior; nesting in the far north, and wintering in the United States southward to Mexico and Cuba.

Season—Spring and autumn migrant or winter resident on the plains and westward to the Pacific.

A long, clanging cackle, wah, wah, wah, wah, rapidly repeated, rings out of the late autumn sky, and looking up, we see a long, orderly line of laughing geese that have been feeding since daybreak in the stubble of harvested grain fields, heading a direct course for the open water of some lake. With heads thrust far forward, these flying projectiles go through space with enviable ease of motion. Because they are large and fly high, they appear to move slowly; whereas the truth is that all geese, when once fairly launched, fly rapidly, which becomes evident enough when they whiz by us at close range. It is only when rising against the wind and making a start that their flight is actually slow and difficult. When migrating, they often trail across the clouds like dots, so high do they go—sometimes a thousand feet or more, it is said—as if they spurned the earth. But as a matter of fact they spend a great part of their lives on land; far more than any of the ducks.

On reaching a point above the water when returning from the feeding grounds, the long defile closes up into a mass. The geese now break ranks, and each for itself goes wheeling about, cackling constantly, as they sail on stiff, set wings; or, diving, tumbling, turning somersaults downward, and catching them-selves before they strike the water, form an orderly array again, and fly silently, close along the surface quite a distance before finally settling down upon it softly to rest.

Such a performance must be gone through twice a day, once after their breakfast, begun at daybreak, and again in the late afternoon, on their return from their inland excursion, which may be to stubble fields, or to low, wet, timbered country, or to bushy prairie lands. Not only the farmer’s cereals, but any sort of wild grain and grasses, berries, and leaf buds of bushes, these hearty vegetarians nip off with relish. When we see them on shallow waters, with tail pointing skyward and head and neck immersed, they are probing the bottom for roots of water plants, particularly for a sort of eel-grass that they fatten on, or for gravel, and are not eating mollusks or any sort of animal food, as is sometimes said.

But fatal consequences await on ducks and geese alike that do not know enough to toughen their flesh and make it rank by a fish diet. White-fronted geese, delicious game birds of the first order, were once abundant during the migrations in the Chesapeake country, where they freely associated with the snow goose and the Canada species, just as they do in the far west to-day; but the sportsman must now travel to the Great Lakes or the plains, or, better still, to California, their favorite winter resort, if he would see a good sized flight above the stubble fields, in which, hidden in a hole, and with flat decoys standing all about him, he waits, cramped and breathless, for the cackling flock to come within range.

The stupidity of this bird is more proverbial than real. If any one doubts this, let him try to stalk one when it is feeding in the fields, or listen to the tales of woe the California farmers tell of its provoking vigilance and cleverness.