One of Minnesota’s most familiar species of waterfowl is the Canada goose. Indeed, this species, which was once not very abundant in the state because of over-hunting and habitat loss, can be considered a wildlife success story today. Through cooperative conservation efforts that included habitat protection, conservative hunting regulations, and even translocating geese to unoccupied areas of the state, the Canada goose population in Minnesota is now thriving.

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 the fact that Canada geese are easy to identify, Canada geese are actually represented by several sub-species. 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 among 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. The same mated pair will often return together to the same breeding grounds year after year. Generally the first species of waterfowl to breed and nest in Minnesota each spring, we can expect to see Canada geese arrive to the Northland by March or early April. Fiercely territorial, a nesting pair of Canada geese will not tolerate another pair to nest 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. Canada geese are excellent parents that will defend their young from predators and other threats.

Nests are usually built on the ground, often on top of mounds of vegetation like muskrat lodges. Other favorite nesting sites also 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 on.

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 that this extraordinary species of goose is as plentiful as they are today.

Canada geese are beginning to gather in large numbers in preparation for their annual fall migration. And as they do, their “V” shaped flock formations and their telltale honking bespeaks a wildness worthy of watching and listening to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.