Chesapeake Bay Field Office
Northeast Region

Canada Goose (branta canadensis)

Canada goose with brood. Photo by Donna Dewhurst, USFWS
Canada goose with brook, Photo by Coleen 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.

Life History
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 Geese
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 suburban areas.

How is the Atlantic Population Doing?
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.

Some migratory birds in the Chesapeake Bay area:

Bald Eagle

Black Rail

Canada Goose


Cerulean Warbler

Field Sparrow

Great Blue Heron

Red Knot


USFWS Office of Migratory Bird Management

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canada goose photo

Last updated: January 28, 2011