Canada goose (Branta canadensis)

Synonyms: Anas canadensis
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderAnseriformes
FamilyAnatidae
GenusBranta (1)
SizeLength: 76 - 110 cm (2)
Wingspan: 127 - 185 cm (2) (3)
Weight3,000 - 9,000 g (2)
Top facts

The Canada goose is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A large and distinctive waterbird, the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) can easily be recognised by its long black neck, black head and conspicuous white cheek patches, which extend under the chin (2) (3) (4) (5). The rest of the body is largely brown, with paler underparts and a white undertail, and there is sometimes a white ring around the base of the neck (2) (3) (5). The feathers on the Canada goose’s body have pale edges, forming bar-like markings (3) (5). This species’ tail is black (5).

The male and female Canada goose are similar in appearance, although the male is generally larger than the female (3) (4) (5) (6). Both sexes have black legs and large, black, webbed feet (2) (3) (5) (6). The bill is also black (3) (5) (6) and is relatively large and flat (2) (5). Juvenile Canada geese resemble the adults, but are slightly duller in colour and have a more brownish-black head and neck (3). Young goslings are olive-brown above and yellowish below, with a darker crown (4) (5) (6).

The Canada goose is very variable in appearance, and several subspecies have been described (3) (4). However, a number of these have now been split into a separate species, the cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) (2) (5) (7), which is smaller and has different calls (2) (5). The subspecies of the Canada goose mainly vary in their size, body proportions and colouration, from light to much darker forms (2) (3) (4) (5). Occasionally, individuals of this species have an all-black head or a white forehead (5). The largest subspecies, the aptly named giant Canada goose (Branta canadensis maxima), is the largest wild goose in the world (5).

The most distinctive call of the Canada goose is a loud, nasal, two-syllable ‘ronk-ronk’ or ‘ka-ronk’, which is given by flocks in flight (3) (5). This species also produces a range of other honking, barking and hissing sounds (2) (4).

The Canada goose is native to North America, where it breeds across much of Alaska, Canada, western Greenland and the northern United States. Some populations remain in the same areas year-round, particularly where the species has been introduced to the south of its normal breeding range. However, many others migrate south to spend the winter in the southern United States and northern Mexico, and this species also sometimes occurs in the Caribbean (2) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8).

Introduced to parts of northern Europe as an ornamental and game species, the Canada goose is now common across countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The Canada goose has also been introduced to Russia and New Zealand (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8). Most of the introduced Canada geese in Europe are non-migratory, but those breeding in Scandinavia may move further south in winter (4).

An adaptable species, the Canada goose can be found in a variety of habitats close to water. For example, it may occur in tundra, woodland, prairies and meadows close to rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes or other water bodies (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), and it also inhabits coastal wetlands (3) (5) (9). The Canada goose is also common in agricultural fields and urban areas (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (8), and is particularly drawn to lawns, such as those of parks, airports and golf courses (2).

The diet of the Canada goose consists entirely of plant matter, including the leaves, stems and roots of various grasses, sedges and aquatic plants. This species also feeds on seeds, fruits and grains, and often eats agricultural crops (2) (4) (5) (6). Juvenile Canada geese may sometimes supplement their diet with insects and other small invertebrates attached to aquatic plants (6). The Canada goose usually feeds by grazing on land, but it also dabbles and upends in water, extending its long neck under the water to reach submerged vegetation (2) (4) (5).

The Canada goose is a social species and often feeds and moves around in large flocks, which typically fly in a ‘V’ formation. These flocks usually consist of loose aggregations of family groups and individuals (2) (5). The Canada goose is a strong flier and often undertakes long migration flights (5) (6), potentially covering up to 2,400 kilometres in just 24 hours (6).

During the breeding season, which usually occurs between about March and June (5), the Canada goose becomes territorial, with pairs beginning to defend nest sites and sometimes fighting aggressively (2) (5). This species may nest individually, but sometimes also builds its nests in loose colonies (2) (4) (5). The Canada goose typically nests on the ground near to water, often on an island, making a small depression in the ground and filling it with vegetation. The nest is lined with down and other feathers (2) (4) (5) (6). Occasionally, the Canada goose has been known to nest in trees, on cliffs or even on the tops of city buildings (4) (5).

Canada geese mate for life, and pairs remain together year-round (2) (5) (6). The female chooses the nest site, builds the nest and incubates the eggs, while the male guards her and the nest (2) (6). The Canada goose usually lays a single clutch of eggs each year, producing around two to eight creamy white eggs per clutch. The eggs hatch after 25 to 28 days and the chicks are able to leave the nest and feed themselves within a day or so of hatching (2) (5). The young geese are not capable of flight until they are about six to nine weeks old (5), and they remain with the adults for their first year of life (2) (5) (6).

Most Canada geese do not breed until they are two to four years old (2) (4) (5). Although Canada goose eggs and chicks may be predated by foxes, gulls, ravens, eagles and bears (5) (6), the adults have relatively few natural predators, only occasionally being taken by wolves, coyotes or large birds of prey (5). The Canada goose can potentially live for up to an impressive 80 years in captivity (6) and up to 30 years in the wild (2), although a lifespan of less than 20 years is more usual (6).

Although the Canada goose was once considerably reduced in numbers and distribution, the species has increased and spread in recent decades, to the point of becoming a nuisance in some areas (2) (5) (6) (7). The Canada goose population is also increasing across its introduced range (4) (8) (9).

Much of the Canada goose’s success is due to the proliferation of lawns, golf courses and parks on which this species can graze (2) (6) (10). Changes in agricultural practices, possibly combined with changes in weather, have also led to this species shifting its winter range northwards as food has become more available (2) (5).

In many parts of its native and introduced ranges, the Canada goose is considered an agricultural pest, and its droppings can foul parks and golf courses, as well as pollute water bodies and potentially pose a health hazard to humans (4) (5) (6) (8) (9) (10). Large numbers of geese can also cause trampling of grasslands and crops, and can damage riverbanks and waterside vegetation (8) (9). When it occurs close to airfields, the Canada goose can pose a serious collision risk for aircraft (2) (5) (6) (8) (9).

Although most Canada goose populations appear to be stable or increasing, some local populations and some subspecies are more at risk. For example, the dusky Canada goose (Branta canadensis occidentalis) underwent a decline in recent decades due to hunting in its wintering grounds and an earthquake which altered its breeding habitat (3) (4) (5). Although now thought to be increasing, the population of this subspecies still remains low (3) (5).

Other potential threats to the Canada goose include oil and gas exploration in its Arctic breeding areas, lead poisoning from ingesting lead shot, and toxic pesticides. This species may also be affected by the loss of wetland habitats due to urban and infrastructure development (5). The Canada goose is heavily hunted for sport and for food in the United States and Canada (2) (4) (5), but this does not appear to be affecting its numbers (2).

The Canada goose is listed as a migratory game bird under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S. and the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada, giving the federal governments of these countries authority for management decisions relating to this species (5).

Where the Canada goose has become a nuisance species, a range of techniques are used to try and limit the problems it causes while still maintaining its overall populations (5). These include shooting the species to limit its numbers, or using other methods such as scaring devices, destroying nests and eggs, or modifying urban habitats to make them less attractive to this bird (4) (5) (6).

In its introduced range in the United Kingdom, the Canada goose is protected, along with all wild birds, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However, it is also listed under Schedule 9 of this act, making it an offence to release this species or allow it to escape into the wild (9).

Find out more about the Canada goose:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds -  Canada goose (October, 2013)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/canada_goose/id
  3. Ogilvie, M.A. and Young, S. (2002) Wildfowl of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
  4. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
    http://www.hbw.com/
  5. Mowbray, T.B., Ely, C.R., Sedinger, J.S. and Trost, R.E. (2002) Canada goose (Branta canadensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/682/
  6. NOBANIS: Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet - Branta canadensis (October, 2013)
    http://www.nobanis.org/files/factsheets/Branta_canadensis.pdf
  7. BirdLife International - Canada goose (October, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=384
  8. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Factsheet - Canada goose (October, 2013)
    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/factsheet/factsheet.cfm?speciesId=533
  9. GB Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS): Identification Sheet - Canada goose (October, 2013)
    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/index.cfm?sectionid=47
  10. Conover, M.R. and Chasko, G.G. (1985) Nuisance Canada goose problems in the eastern United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 13(3): 228-233.