Bar-headed goose (Anser indicus)
|Also known as:||Indian goose|
|Size||Length: 68 - 78 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 140 - 160 cm (3)
|Weight||2 - 3 kg (3)|
- The bar-headed goose is named for the two conspicuous dark bars running around the back of its white head.
- Two different warning calls are uttered by the bar-headed goose, one to signal a bird of prey and one for land predators.
- The bar-headed goose is able to migrate at altitudes of up to 10,000 metres over the Himalayas.
- A native of central and southern Asia, the bar-headed goose may become an invasive species across much of Europe should its population size in its introduced range reach a critical level.
The bar-headed goose is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
An unmistakeable species (2) (3) (4), the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) is a medium to large, pale grey goose (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) with a striking black and white pattern on its head for which it gets its common name (5) (6).
The head of the bar-headed goose is mostly white (4) (5), but is clearly marked with two horizontal dark stripes (2) (3) (5) (6), the upper of which is broad and runs round the back of the head from eye to eye (4) (5) (6). The lower stripe circles the lower nape and is much narrower (4) (5) (6).
The throat and very top of the bar-headed goose’s neck are white (5), while the hindneck is blackish (3) (5) (6) and is separated from the dark grey foreneck by a white, tapering stripe running down each side of the neck (5). The lower flanks of this species are dark (3), while the long wings appear almost white when in flight and are tipped with black (3) (6).
The yellow to orange-yellow bill of the bar-headed goose is also black-tipped (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). This species has brown eyes (6) and yellowish to pale orange legs and feet (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
Male and female bar-headed geese are similar in appearance (2) (3) (5), although the male is usually slightly larger (3) (5) (6). Juveniles are similar in plumage to the adults, but they are generally duller (5), paler (6) and lack the distinctive horizontal bars on the back of the head (2) (5) (6). The bill, legs and feet of juvenile bar-headed geese are greenish-yellow (3) (6) and duller than those of the adults (5).
The bar-headed goose produces rather human-like cackling notes (3), and when in flight it gives the slow, deliberate and somewhat nasal honking calls characteristic of geese (2) (3) (5). Contact calls consist of between one and three syllables, whereas greeting calls, which are only ever given between family members, comprise up to five syllables. Interestingly, the bar-headed goose utters two different warning notes, one which is given when a bird of prey is nearby, and another for when land predators are close. Trilled calls are used to indicate that a bird is sleepy, and in defensive situations the bar-headed goose hisses (3) (6).
A high-altitude endemic of central and southern Asia (2) (3) (6), the bar-headed goose breeds mainly in Mongolia, western China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (3) (4) (5), but also along some rivers in the north Indian subcontinent (3). The breeding range of this species is much smaller than it once was (5).
The bar-headed goose winters mainly in the lowlands of northern India, as well as in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar (3) (4) (5). This species is considered to be a vagrant in several countries, including Guam, Japan and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (7).
The bar-headed goose has been introduced in Canada and Spain (7), and feral populations of this species have been recorded in many European countries (3). For instance, between 20 and 25 breeding pairs are thought to be present in Belgium, and a breeding population is also known from Finland (3). The bar-headed goose has also been introduced to the UK, where it is present throughout the year in small numbers in the wild (2) (4) in many lowland areas as far north as Orkney (4).
The bar-headed goose winters in lowland marshes and swamps and by rivers and lakes (2) (3) (4) (5). In parts of its range where it has been introduced, such as in the UK, this species also occupies meadows or arable farmland near lowland waters (4).
Breeding in high-altitude zones of central Asia, the bar-headed goose nests beside a variety of highland wetlands, such as montane lakes (2) (4) (5), generally at elevations between 4,000 and 5,300 metres and often near rocky outcrops (3).
The bar-headed goose is typically a migratory species, flying southwards in the winter to northern India and adjacent countries (3). Although the migration routes taken by this species are relatively poorly known (3), the bar-headed goose has been reported to migrate over the Himalayas at impressive altitudes of between 9,000 and 10,000 metres (3) (4). Unique physiological adaptations enable this species to carry out such a feat (4).
The bar-headed goose is a primarily herbivorous species (4) (3), foraging mostly by grazing on land, but also feeding on the water (3). This species eats a variety of grasses, roots, leaves, stems, seeds and berries during the breeding season, as well as small insects and crustaceans. In winter the bar-headed goose also eats grain, tubers and other vegetables, with coastal populations also being known to feed on seaweed, and where available this species will also take crops including beans and peas. Interestingly, the bar-headed goose demonstrates a high tolerance for otherwise poisonous plants, including Convallaria majalis (3).
The breeding season of the bar-headed goose generally starts in late May or June (2) (3). This species tends to form long-term monogamous pairs (3), with colonies often containing more than 1,000 pairs (3) (4), but it is also known to form harem groups consisting of one male and up to five females (3). In its native range, the bar-headed goose builds its nest at high altitude (4). This species is usually a ground nester, building a shallow nest of vegetation lined with down (3) among marshes, along rivers or next to lakes (3) (4), although it is also known to nest in trees (3). The bar-headed goose generally returns to the same nesting site year on year (3).
The female bar-headed goose usually lays a clutch of between four and six eggs (2) (3), although clutches can range in size from three to eight eggs (3). Incubation lasts between 27 and 30 days (3) (4), and is carried out by the female alone (3). Bar-headed goose goslings are able to leave the nest site two days after hatching, and are capable of feeding themselves just one or two days later (3). The young birds take their first flight at about 53 days of age, and fledge between 65 and 80 days of age. During the autumn migration and the ensuing winter period, family parties tend to stay together. The bar-headed goose is thought to reach sexual maturity at about two or three years old (3).
With its extremely large range and large population size (7), the bar-headed goose is not considered to be globally threatened (3).
However, this species was once classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, and the current population trend appears to be decreasing (3). In the past, the bar-headed goose has suffered population declines as a result of the shooting of adults, egg collection and habitat destruction, which damages important roosting and foraging areas (3) (5).
This species is still hunted across much of China (3) and along its migration flyways, while some breeding colonies are also affected by the gathering of eggs for food (4). An additional recent threat to this species came in the form of an outbreak of avian influenza, which led to the death of several thousand bar-headed geese (3) (4). The presence of power lines, particularly those positioned along key flyways or close to roost sites, could also pose a relatively significant threat to the bar-headed goose (3).
While the bar-headed goose currently faces certain threats, it is itself a potential threat in both its native and introduced range. Avian influenza can be fatal to humans, and it is feared that the bar-headed goose could be a carrier of the disease within Asia (3) (4). The droppings of this species could therefore pose a health and safety risk to humans (2).
In India, the bar-headed goose is known to feed on agricultural land, raiding crops such as rice, wheat and barley (4). Although no such reports of crop damage have yet been documented in the UK (4), it is possible that this species could cause significant damage to pastures and crops through grazing and trampling should it become more common and widespread (2). At present, the effects the bar-headed goose has had on the environment in the UK are negligible (2) (4), but it is believed that once a critical population level is reached in its introduced range, this species could become invasive across much of Europe (4).
As the bar-headed goose is not considered to be globally threatened, there is little information available on specific conservation measures in place for this species. However, the small bar-headed goose population in Kyrgyzstan has been boosted through hand-rearing and releasing juveniles (3).
In England and Wales the bar-headed goose is listed under Schedule 9 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to release or allow the escape of this species into the wild (2).
Find out more about the bar-headed goose:
GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Factsheet - Bar-headed goose:
The Internet Bird Collection - Bar-headed goose:
BirdLife International - Bar-headed Goose:
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- Avian influenza: also known as “bird flu”, a contagious disease caused by any strain of influenza virus that is carried by and primarily affects birds.
- Crustaceans: diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice and barnacles.
- Endemic: a species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
- Feral: previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
- Herbivorous: having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
- Incubation: the act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Montane: of mountains, or growing in mountains.
- Tuber: in plants, a thickened stem or root that acts as an underground storage organ. Roots and shoots grow from growth buds, called ‘eyes’, on the surface of the tuber.
- Vagrant: an individual found outside the normal range of the species.
IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Identification Sheet - Bar-headed goose (October, 2013)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Factsheet - Bar-headed goose (October, 2013)
- Ogilvie, M.A. and Young, S. (2002) Wildfowl of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
- Kear, J. (Ed.) (2005) Ducks, Geese and Swans. Volume 1: General Chapters, and Species Accounts (Anhima to Salvadorina). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
BirdLife International - Bar-headed Goose (October, 2013)