Here in Minnesota, the Canada goose is among the first species of waterfowl to arrive at their still-frozen northern breeding grounds.
The familiar geese can often be observed resting on ice-covered lakes waiting for the eventual thaw. Their mere presence reminds us all that spring is finally upon us.
Indeed, as spring gives way to summer and summer to autumn, the changing seasons can be gauged by the natural history of the Canada goose. As already mentioned, their early spring arrival in March and early April marks the season of renewal. Soon after, pair bonds are reestablished, or new ones formed, and nesting commences.
Following this period of time, usually during the nesting season and before many broods are seen, non-breeding adult Canada geese, typically by early June, begin their annual "molt" migration to preferred molting areas of the north. This northerly mass exodus also serves the purpose of freeing up important critical brooding wetlands for the breeding adults and their fast-growing goslings.
By the first few weeks of July, the molt is well underway. No geese, adults and goslings alike, can fly during this time of year. The adult geese have lost most of their flight feathers, while the feathers of their offspring are still developing.
By mid-August, as the days of summer become noticeably shorter and the nights noticeably longer, family groups, no longer flightless, begin gathering in larger and larger flocks. Anyone taking note at this time of year can sense the early beginnings of the approaching fall migration, although still two to three months off.
Even so, nightly roosts of large flocks of geese are common, as are morning and evening trips to recently harvested grain fields. Lastly, by late November and early December, most Canada geese have left the Northland for southerly warmth and plentiful food.
The Canada goose is often incorrectly called the Canadian goose. The scientific name for this common species of waterfowl is Branta canadensis. As familiar as the drake mallard is, most people recognize a Canada goose when they see one. Their most diagnostic trait is the black head and neck with the distinctive white cheek patches on both sides of the head. Bodies are colored gray-brown and their breasts are a light gray. Both sexes look identical.
Despite their ease of identifying, Canada geese are actually a confusing lot. Taxonomists recognize at least 11 or 12 races - maybe more - of the species. All are similar looking, but vary in size and distribution. Variation in plumage coloration and markings also occurs amongst the individual subspecies.
For example, the Aleutian Canada goose frequently sports a white neck-ring, much like that of a drake mallard. In addition, the Cackling Canada goose, another subspecies, is only about a pound heavier than a mallard duck, while the Giant Canada goose can weigh as much as 20 pounds and more.
Like all geese, Canada geese are grazers. The birds feed on grasses, aquatic plants and agricultural crops such as wheat, soybeans and corn. Insects are also a part of their diet, especially for the fast-growing goslings. It's also typical to observe Canada geese foraging for aquatic plants and other edibles in the water.
Tipping their tails up and completely submerging their heads and necks underwater, Canada geese will feel around with their sensitive bills on the bottoms of wetlands for food. Natural strainers called lamellae line the outside edges of their bills. These structures assist in straining water through foodstuffs, for cutting plant materials, and in preening their feathers.
It's believed that Canada geese mate for life. Indeed, the same pair will often return together to the same breeding grounds year after year. Fiercely territorial, a nesting pair of Canada geese will not tolerate another pair nesting nearby. Unlike ducks, both genders assist each other in rearing the offspring. When the goslings hatch about a month after the last egg is laid, both goose parents are constantly on the lookout for anything that could endanger the brood.
Nests are usually built on the ground, often on top of mounds of vegetation like muskrat lodges. Other favorite nesting sites include small islands within wetlands, protected shorelines and even artificial goose nesting platforms and other structures. Wildlife managers and property owners have used a variety of artificial goose nesting structures to entice Canada geese to nest.
For instance, Canada geese will readily use large round bales of hay tipped on their ends within wetlands, concrete culverts tipped in similar fashion and filled with soil and vegetation, floating nesting platforms that look like rafts and even old wash tubs partially filled with soil and plant material and placed in suitable locations. Such adaptability is one reason Canada geese have become a modern day wildlife success story.
Canada geese are just now beginning to fill the sky in long "V" flight patterns as their telltale honking bespeaks a wildness worthy of listening and watching. These wild geese, with their black necks and familiar white cheek patches, are large and beautiful waterfowl to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com