Few spectacles symbolize autumn better than a gang of Canada Geese crossing a cloudy sky in V-formation. Common throughout most of North America, Canada Geese live around ponds, rivers, and lake shores where they feed on aquatic grass, roots, and young sprouts, as well as corn and grain. A strong inward pull called instinct urges these waterfowl into the skies to make this great annual southward migration. But instinct does not determine the route the birds take. Canada Geese migrate in family groups, and they will travel the same route year after year. The young geese learn the route from their parents, and use the same route in subsequent years with their own young.
Canada Geese are more family-oriented than many other species of waterfowl. Adults mate for life, although a widow will often choose another mate. Pairs look for appropriate nesting sites in early spring, just as soon as there is open water for mating, and snow-free sites for nesting. Together, they use grass and plant material to build their nests, lining it with feather down. When the nest is ready, the male, called a gander, will guard the area as his mate lays her eggs. An average clutch is five to seven eggs, but it can be as low as two or as high as twelve. Each egg will take a day of more to lay, and incubation lasts about a month.
Both goose and gander are present when the eggs begin to hatch. Goslings use their sharp egg teeth to peck their way out of their shells, an arduous task that can take a full day or two. These newly hatched babies resemble ducklings, with yellow and gray feathers and dark bills; but within a week they will have changed into awkward-looking, fuzzy gray birds. Once out of their eggs, goslings are able to swim immediately, and will enter the water accompanied by both parents. There they will begin their first task of diving and eating. They must eat continually in order to grow sufficiently for their first flight. Newly-hatched goslings can dive 30-40 feet underwater for nutritious, aquatic plants.
At nine or ten weeks of age, goslings have grown their flight feathers and look like smaller versions of their parents. Canada Geese are easily identifiable with their long black necks and heads and contrasting white cheek and throats. Their back, upper wings, and flank areas are brown capes draped over nearly white breasts and bellies. Short black tails, black legs and black webbed feet are visible when they waddle across an open field. While Canada Geese range in size, they are typically 20-50 inches long, with a 50-68 inch wingspan. The largest varieties are called honkers, while smaller geese, one fourth the size, are called cacklers.
The first two months of a gosling’s life its entire goose family is earth-bound. Ganders molt directly after mating, and geese molt shortly after her eggs hatch. Unable to fly, the family abandons the nest on foot to find better feeding areas. Adults will have re-grown their new feathers just in time to give their young their first flying lesson.
Few birds are as vocal as Canada Geese, and some say they encourage each other as they take their challenging journey. If you listen carefully, you can determine the gender of the goose by their vocalizations. Ganders speak in a low-pitched honk, while geese use a high-pitched hink. Goslings have a soft, wheezy call.
The journey is made easier by flying in V-formation. By flying in formation, the flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. As each goose flaps its wings, it creates uplift for those following behind. The geese take turns in the point position, as tired birds rotate back. If a goose is wounded or falls out of formation for any other reason, two of its flock will stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then they will join another formation or catch up with their flock.