Five Facts About Those Ever-Present Canada Geese

Canada geese are one of the most well-known and widespread birds, but they definitely don't make many favorite lists.

Canada geese. (Photo courtesy of Byron Morgan)

All year long you can find these geese congregating around our waterways — and leaving behind messy evidence of their presence.


Canada geese are a well-known migrant, but we see them all year in northern Illinois. Why? Well, some Canada geese migrate here from points north, and some geese stay put all year because they have everything they need right here.


Read on to learn more about these noisy neighbors.


They mate for life


Canada geese are among several animals, predominantly birds, that mate for life. At the age of 2 or 3, Canada geese begin to seek a mate through the process of assortative mating, which means they look for a bird that is about the same size as them.


Geese can live between 10 years and 25 years, so it's not uncommon for a pair to be together for a decade or longer. If a goose's partner dies, the surviving goose will find a new mate.


A mated pair of Canada geese will raise one brood each year. The female will lay between two and 10 eggs, which she incubates while the male keeps a watchful eye on the nest. The goslings will stay with their parents until the spring after they hatch, when they will join a group of other juvenile geese until they are ready to select a mate.


They are efficient flyers


Geese are easily noticeable flying overhead, both because of their honking call and their recognizable V formation. That formation is actually a successful energy-saving strategy. Birds flying in formation expend far less energy flying than they would flying alone. In fact, studies have shown that geese flying in a V formation expend only half as much energy as they would flying alone or in another configuration.

 

Words to know

Congregating: To gather in a crowd or mass.

Expend: To use up a resource such as energy.

Incubate: To sit on eggs to keep them warm.

Migrant: A person or animal that moves from one place to another.

 

The energy savings is the same phenomenon achieved when jets fly in formation, which uses less fuel than flying singly. When in formation, a bird — or jet — benefits from lift by flying in the updraft created by the birds in front of it.


The bird at the front of the V does not benefit from the energy savings like the other birds do, so the front bird will switch places and allow another bird to take the lead when it gets tired. Canada geese aren't the only birds that fly in V formation. It's common among waterfowl, including many species of ducks, geese, ibises, pelicans and swans.


For a time each year, they can't fly


Flight is important for escaping predators for Canada geese and countless other birds, but for a period each summer Canada geese cannot fly. Geese and other waterfowl can't fly when they molt their feathers, because unlike other birds, they molt their feathers all at once. Without feathers, they cannot fly.


Canada geese typically molt in late June or early July, and they will remain grounded for about a month until their new feathers grow in. Because they are more vulnerable during their molt, they will move to an area of open water near a reliable food source. This provides them walking access to food and easy access to water, where they can go to escape predators. The open water also provides them a way to monitor their surroundings.


They really will imprint on the first thing they see after birth


Have you heard the old wives' tale that ducks and geese will think the first thing they see after they hatch is their mother? This might seem far-fetched, but it's essentially true.

A Canada goose and its goslings. (Photo courtesy of Sue Lambert)

After hatching, geese and some other birds, including ducks and turkeys, will imprint on their parent. Imprinting is an important part of their early development because it helps them learn about how they should behave. Essentially, they learn how to be a goose from imprinting on their parents after hatching.


Imprinting happens very soon after birth, so if goslings are not in the care of their parents, they may imprint on their wrong species. Once imprinting occurs, the animal will identify with that species for life. In some cases, newly hatched goslings and other birds will imprint on humans if they are not in the presence of their parents. This process is irreversible and will cause the goslings to identify with humans, rather than with geese, forever. While this may seem like a cute accident, it does not mean the goslings will be friendly or agreeable to human presence. In some cases, their familiarity with humans may cause them to be aggressive toward them.


They can be mean, but only when they have to be


Geese have a well-known mean streak, with a reputation for going after anything that gets too close. Really, though, geese aren't necessarily any more aggressive than other birds. Instead, we have more encounters with them because in many areas we live alongside them.

Canada geese. (Photo courtesy of Debi Shapiro)

Their aggressive behavior is for good reason. They are protecting their territory and their family. During nesting season, males in particular can be aggressive as they protect their mate and their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, both males and females will be protective of their goslings.


You can avoid an encounter with an aggressive goose by giving them their space. Geese will exhibit defensive behaviors such as honking, hissing, wing flapping and head pumping when they feel threatened. If you see these behaviors, steer clear. Walk slowly and give the geese a lot of space.

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