BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Snow geese are a marvel of success and ancient beginnings
One of the most abundant species of birds on the planet, certainly among the most populous of waterfowl, snow geese are hopscotching the continent on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds.
Oh, glorious spring, my favorite time of the year. After a seemingly endless winter, nothing could be more welcome than lots of sun, warmth and melting. It’s time once again for the annual rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation. Springtime is the best time.
Reports of migrant songbirds filtering into the Northland are common now. American robins, red-winged blackbirds, sandhill cranes, Canada geese and trumpeter swans have arrived, and soon many more migrant wild birds will join them.
Also, songbirds such as common redpolls and dark-eyed juncos will be on their way farther north to the Arctic Circle and other places in the northern hemisphere to breed and nest.
And one of the most abundant species of birds on the planet, certainly among the most populous of waterfowl, snow geese are hopscotching the continent on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds, too. This beautiful species of goose is a marvel of success and ancient beginnings, what with their massive numbers, migratory feats and primordial vocalizations.
My first close encounter with snow geese occurred in the spring of 2000. A good friend and I decided to try our luck at hunting snow geese during the then-new “spring white goose” hunting season that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service authorized.
The hunt, which continues today, was allowed because the snow goose population was so high that the birds were damaging their breeding and nesting grounds. In essence, the hunt was implemented to help reduce the population.
The awe-inspiring migratory spectacle that we observed that spring and subsequent springs since have all been throughout the Prairie Pothole Region and grasslands of the Dakotas. I remember one memorable day in the month of March with scarcely a hint of a breeze or a cloud in the sky watching endless flocks of migrating waterfowl, mostly snow geese, steaming northward high above our heads. What a sight.
This incredible migratory event was the result of a several-day layover because of stormy weather of wind and snow that kept most birds grounded. But on that day when the weather broke, it was as though floodgates of feathers were opened.
I couldn't help but feel the sense of urgency observing these migrating birds as I stared skyward at the wondrous sight of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl of nearly every kind, horizon to horizon, flying north to their nesting grounds.
One of the interesting features of snow geese is that not all of them are white. You’ve probably heard of “blue geese” or “blue morph” which is simply a common color phase of the snow goose. The snow goose and blue goose are the same species, just different colors, and they all travel, breed and nest together.
As mentioned, snow geese breed and nest in large numbers in the Arctic Circle. From the tundra of Alaska and across Canada to sub-Arctic to high Arctic, this prolific species of goose is indeed abundant. Some population estimates have the snow goose population at over 5 million birds worldwide.
What’s more, even despite hunting seasons in the spring and fall, the population continues to increase. Snow geese numbers have increased more than 300% since the 1970s. Incredible to say the least.
Like all geese, snow geese are primarily grazers. Voracious foragers (and the reason for habitat decline at their tundra breeding and nesting grounds), snow geese feed on a wide variety of grasses and other wetland and tundra plants such as species of sedges and rushes and a host of other plants that includes all the parts—stems, seeds, leaves, tubers, and even roots.
It’s no wonder that millions of these birds can have such a profound effect on the environment.
Long-lived, snow geese can reach ages of a dozen to more than 20 years of age. The oldest snow goose on record was a wild goose shot in Texas in 1999 that was 27-years-old. As with most migratory species of birds, older, more experienced mature birds lead younger birds to and from nesting grounds and wintering grounds each year.
These migration routes become entrenched in younger birds’ memories that in turn are passed onto other geese.
It’s hard to believe at one time the snow goose population was in such peril almost 100 years ago that hunting was stopped.
But by the mid-1970s, hunting seasons resumed because of population recovery. And every year since then, snow goose populations continue to increase and expand as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.