Birds – Canada Goose

(Branta canadensis)


Length—From 1 yard to 43 inches.

Male and Female—Head and neck black, a broad white band running from eye to eye under the head ; mantle over back and wings grayish brown, the edges of feathers lightest ; breast gray, fading to soiled white underneath. Female paler ; tail, bill, and feet black.

Range—North America at large nests in northern parts of the United States and in the British possessions ; winters south-ward to Mexico.

Season—Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant, north of Washing-ton ; although a few remain so late (December) and return so early (March) they may almost be said to be winter residents north as well as in the south. The most abundant and widely distributed of all our wild geese.

Heralded by a mellow honk, honk, from the leader of a flying wedge, on come the long-necked wild geese from their northern nesting grounds, and stream across the sky so far above us that their large bodies appear like two lines of dark dots describing the letter V. In spite of their height, which never seems as great as it actually is because of the goose’s large size, one can distinctly hear the honk of the temporary captain—some heavy veteran—answered in clearer, deeper tones, as the birds pass above, by the rear guardsmen in the long array that moves with impressive unison across the clouds. Often the fanning of their wings is distinctly audible too. The migration of all birds can but excite wonder and stir the imagination ; but that of the wild goose embarked on a pilgrimage of several thousand miles, made often at night, but chiefly by broad daylight, attracts perhaps the most attention. Sometimes the two diverging lines come together into one, and a serpent seems to crawl with snake-like undulations across the sky; or, again, the flock in Indian file shoots straight as an arrow. It is as a bird of passage that one thinks of the goose, however well one knows that it remains resident in many places at least a part of the winter.

A slow drift down a slope of a mile or more, on almost motionless wings, brings them to the surface with majestic grace, and flying low until the precise spot is reached where they wish to rest, they settle on the water with a heavy splash. Usually they stop flying near sunset to feed on the eel-grass, sedges, roots of aquatic plants, insects, and occasionally on small fish, or on the wheat, corn, and other grain that has dropped among the stubble in the farmer’s fields, and the berries, grass, and leaf buds they find in swamps and bushy pastures. Quantities of gravel are swallowed with their food. After a good supper they return to the water, preferably to a good-sized lake, to sleep, and there they float about with head tucked under wing until daybreak, when another flight must be made inland to secure a breakfast. These two regular daily flights are characteristic of all the geese.

Such punctuality at meals is confidently reckoned upon by the sportsman, who is thereby saved unnecessary waiting as he crouches, cramped and cold, in a pit among the stubble and concealed by a blind. These holes are about thirty inches in diameter and about forty inches in depth. There are no birds with keener, more suspicious eyes; no sentinel of a flock more on the alert, unless it be the sandhill crane, that often feeds with them and is their ally ; no game birds more wary when the sports-man tries to stalk them than these; and so no one can possibly appreciate the expression ” a wild goose chase ” who has not hunted them. The goose is by no means the dolt tradition says it is. The ordinary methods of hunting water-fowl do not answer with it, and in different parts of the country a different ruse is practiced to secure its flesh. Strangely enough, ducks and geese alike, that are thrown into a state of panic at sight of a man or dog, show no fear whatever of cows; and taking advantage of this fact, gunners often hide behind cattle, or lead a horse or an ox to get within range. On the great plains and in California, oxen trained for the purpose screen the hunters on horse-back, and walk straight into the flocks of Canada, snow, and laughing geese that have been lured by live or artificial decoys placed in some good feeding ground. Geese are not only gregarious, but extremely sociable to their kin and to other birds as quick to take alarm as they. A constant gabbling goose-talk is overheard wherever they congregate, like members of a country sewing society.

And yet these wary creatures have been successfully domesticated and crossed with the common barnyard goose. Many stories are in circulation of wild geese that have been wounded, and placed among the farmer’s fowls, where they have been made well and apparently content until a flock of migrants, passing above, called them to a wild life again; but the very birds that could be easily identified by the scars of old wounds, revisited the barnyard whenever their travels to and from the south permitted. All geese become strongly attached to certain localities. Ordinarily, a goose that has been wounded in the wing runs, if on land, but so awkwardly it may be quickly over-taken. If wounded when above or on the water, it will dive, and remain under the surface with only its nostrils exposed until all danger is over. Unless seriously hurt, it generally eludes capture. The thick coat of feathers, that have an even greater commercial value than its flesh, is the goose’s suit of armor, impenetrable except at close range.

When surprised, a flock rises suddenly in great confusion; the large birds get in one another’s way and offer the easiest shots the tyro ever gets; the honk, honk, k’wonk from many outstretched throats clamoring at once mingles with the roar of wings, as with slow, heavy, labored flight the geese rise against the wind—the point from which they must be approached if one is to get a good view of them. But order somehow comes speedily out of chaos once the birds are well launched in air. Double ranks are formed, with the leader at the point where the two lines converge, and the wedge moves on, far away if they have been terrorized by firing, but only a few hundred yards if they find there is no real ground for fear.

Flocks of wild geese go and come in the United States from September, when the young birds are able to join in the long flights, until early spring, when the great majority go north to nest. In some secluded marsh, by the shores of streams, or on the open prairie, far from the habitations of hungry men, the goose lays four or five pale buff eggs in a mass of sticks lined with grass and feathers, and sits very closely, while the gander keeps guard near by. An empty osprey’s nest in a tree top, or a cavity in some old stump, frequently contains these eggs; but the goslings never return to the cradle once they have been led to water, for they are good walkers and swimmers from the start. After a thorough moult, which often makes the old birds as incapable of flying as the goslings, the detached families gather into flocks in September, when a few cold snaps in the Hudson Bay region suggest the necessity for migrating to warmer climes. On their arrival here they are very thin, worn out by the long journey; but the Christmas goose, as every housekeeper knows, is perhaps the fattest bird brought to her kitchen.