Canada Goose (branta canadensis)
Canada goose with brood. Photo by Donna Dewhurst, USFWS
On a clear, crisp autumn day, high-flying
Canada geese appear as tiny black specks against the blue sky. Loud honking
signals their arrival to southern wintering grounds. Few species mark
the changing of the seasons as distinctively as the celebrated Canada
goose. Great flocks grace the shorelines and fields of a Chesapeake winter.
Migrating flocks may fly in long diagonal
lines but are most noted for their distinctive "V" flying pattern. Some
believe that this flying pattern reduces wind drag and lessens collisions
between birds. When the lead goose tires, it merely drops back and another
bird takes the lead. This system helps the geese complete their long migrations.
Their migration route takes them along the eastern shore
of Hudson Bay and James Bay, across central New York and eastern Pennsylvania
and south to the Delmarva peninsula. This is the Atlantic Flyway.
From late February to early March, geese leave the Chesapeake
Bay area and migrate back to their northern breeding grounds, with many
family units still intact. Shortly after their arrival, however, the yearlings
will leave their parents.
Many of the geese wintering on the Chesapeake Bay breed
in northern Quebec, up to 1600 miles away. On the breeding grounds, the
pairs wait until the snow and ice melt before they begin nesting. Canada
geese mate in their third year and pairs usually remain together as long
as both birds are alive.The geese may lay from one to twelve eggs, but
four to five is the average. Eggs are incubated for four weeks. The male
(gander) never sits on the eggs but stands guard nearby.
The downy goslings leave the nest and feed themselves
hours after hatching, but the parents continue to watch over them. Canada
geese are very protective of both nest and young. Twisting its neck into
an "S" shape and hissing, a Canada goose will try to intimidate intruders
and predators. Goslings are able to fly at eight to nine weeks old.
Atlantic Population vs. Resident
The shortening of days and crisp frosts of early autumn
signal the Canada geese to prepare for another journey back to the Chesapeake
Bay. The Chesapeake Bay area has become the most heavily used wintering
area for Canada geese of the Atlantic Flyway.
The geese that winter in the Chesapeake Bay watershed
are not the same as the over abundant resident Canada geese.These geese
have shorter movements often breeding and wintering in the same state
or region. Resident geese originated from the release of live decoys during
the 1930s and government and private stocking programs. Resident geese
are found mainly on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in urban and
How is the Atlantic Population
During the late 1980's, numbers of the Atlantic Population
Canada geese began to decline. The decline was due to a combination of
factors. One problem has been the poor annual production of young, caused
by unfavorable weather conditions in northern nesting grounds. Geese have
experienced poor production from 1986 through 1996.
Another problem is a low survival rate caused largely
by hunting pressures. Harvest rates increased in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
This was a result of liberal hunting regulations, more waterfowl hunters
and greater efficiency of hunters. Geese are imprinted to their wintering
area. Adults lead their young to a wintering site. When the young mature,
they too will lead their young to the same place, even if that area becomes
a popular hunting spot.
Midwinter waterfowl surveys in the Chesapeake Bay region
also showed a decline in Canada geese, from more than 555,000 in 1985
to 298,000 in 1995. That same year due to the continued poor production,
the Atlantic Flyway Council recommended that the hunting season be closed
in the U.S. and Canada. In 1995, the hunting season was closed on migrant
Canada geese throughout the Atlantic Flyway.
Since then Atlantic Population Canada geese have increased
from a low of 29,000 breeding pairs in 1995 to 63,000 breeding pairs in
1997. In 1998, the number of breeding pairs declined by 33 % to 42,000.
This decrease, however, may be partly due to an earlier than normal spring
and nesting seasons. At the time of the survey many goslings had already
hatched. Adults with young are more secretive and harder to see than when
they are still nesting. Despite this, biologists estimate that the total
Atlantic population of Canada geese, including both breeding and nonbreeding
geese, climbed 18 %, the highest since 1988.
The number of Canada geese wintering on the Chesapeake
also increased to more than 333,000 in 1998. The Atlantic Flyway Council,
representing federal, state and provincial wildlife agencies, developed
a plan to rebuild the Atlantic Canada goose population. The goal is to
re-establish 150,000 breeding pairs in northern Quebec. Sport hunting
will resume when the number of breeding pairs reaches 60,000 and there
is convincing evidence that the population is undergoing sustained growth.
Canada geese have been a source of food and income to
many people living in the Bay region. Restricting harvests helps to sustain
a healthy population returning to northern breeding grounds each year.
It is there that the geese reproduce, completing their life cycle and
allowing them to, once again, make their way back to the Chesapeake Bay.