ALWAYS IN SEASON: Geese are a government success story

The sound of gunshots early Saturday reminded me of one of our government's most successful undertakings: the re-establishment of the giant Canada goose.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

The sound of gunshots early Saturday reminded me of one of our government's most successful undertakings: the re-establishment of the giant Canada goose.

A flock of geese settled into a field near my place west of Gilby, N.D., late Friday, and a group of hunters greeted them soon after daylight Saturday.

Judging by their rapid volleys and their excited talk, their efforts were successful.

Judging by their squawking, most of the geese escaped.

Not many years ago, such a scene would have been exceptional -- but now it is repeated across North Dakota and much of the rest of the U.S. Although Canada geese have never been endangered, the giant subspecies was on the brink of extinction. A remnant flock was found in Rochester, Minn., in 1962, and this became the basis to save the giant Canada goose.


As a young reporter, I reported on the release of giant Canada geese in southwestern North Dakota. Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hoped the birds would become established on a wildlife refuge there.

They did -- and not only there.

Today, the giant Canada goose is abundant. To birders, it is an annoyance, since the big birds alert other species and spook them to take cover. To farmers and others who manage land -- golf course operators come to mind -- the geese are a nuisance. They eat a lot and they leave a mess behind.

To nearly everyone, of course, the Canada goose is a sign of the changing season.

But the goose is no longer a dependable harbinger. Today, their breeding range extends virtually across the continent, extending much farther south than was true a few decades ago.

The Canada goose is a kind of super species. Here's how ornithologists put it in the monograph on the species in "The Birds of North America":

"The Canada goose exhibits marked morphological variation, perhaps the most extreme intra-specific differences in body size among birds, with subspecies that are among the largest and smallest of all geese."

What this means is that Canada geese come in a wide range of sizes.


In general, the largest of these subspecies nest farther south; the smaller farther north.

Scientists had identified seven subspecies, but in 2004, several of these were assigned to a newly named species, cackling goose, after extensive DNA testing showed that these birds don't interbreed with Canada geese.

Details of identification are complicated.

Canada geese are familiar, of course. The latest edition of Roger Tory Peterson's "Field Guide to the Birds" declares that cackling geese can be told from Canada geese "by smaller size, shorter neck, smaller, rounder head, stubbier bill and higher-pitched voice."

These are subtle differences, of course, not always apparent in the field. All in all, this makes separating these two species as difficult, at least, as telling Ross' geese from snow geese. But that's a challenge that arises much less frequently around here, because Ross' geese are accidental here.

Cackling geese, however, are common.

Both Canada and cackling geese have passed through the Red River Valley for millennia -- at least since the glaciers melted.

But the giant Canada goose is the only nester.


Of course, I can't be certain that the geese in the field adjoining my place were giant Canada geese, and I

wouldn't maintain with certainty that they were Canada geese at all.

I think so, though, based on how big they seemed as they settled into the field at dusk and as they fled the field at dawn.

And they honked. They didn't cackle.

The weekend brought other migrants, too. The first of my season's snow geese passed early in the evening Thursday. Although it was dark, I recognized their distinctive, incessant calling, and judged the flock to be a large one.

Snow geese are among the most numerous of birds during the fall migration here. Flocks sometimes approach 10,000 birds -- or even 10 times that number.

Sometimes, though not often in my experience, a flock of snow geese will include a Ross' goose, though this species generally migrates to the west of us.

A fifth species of goose passes through the Red River Valley, too. This is the greater white-fronted goose, an altogether less abundant species than Canada, cackling or snow geese.


Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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