What Does It Look Like?
The Canada goose has gray-brown body and wing feathers with black feathers on the head and the long, black neck. There is a white patch on each side of the head. The chest feathers are light gray. The tail feathers are black-brown, and the rump feathers are also dark, with a white band on the tail. The feathers on the bottom of the body behind the legs are white. The bill, legs and feet are black. The feet are webbed to aid in swimming and walking on mud. Males and females of this species have the same appearance.
How Big is It?
Canada geese live throughout the United States, and there are different types of Canada geese. The different types are different sizes. So if you visit another part of the country or Canada, you might see Canada geese that are smaller than those you find in Illinois. The two main types of Canada geese seen in Illinois during fall and winter are the giant Canada goose and the interior Canada goose. Giant Canada geese are the kind that you probably see most often because they are found in Illinois year-round. Giant Canada geese nest in Illinois and weigh from almost nine pounds to more than 16 pounds. They have a wingspan as large as six feet, which is the largest of all waterfowl in Illinois except swans. Interior Canada geese nest near Hudson Bay in Canada. They are slightly smaller than giant Canada geese. They weigh between 6.5 and 9.5 pounds. Each wing is about 18 to 20 inches long from the wrist joint to the tip of the longest flight feather.
Does It Make any Sounds?
While this species is most known for making a honking sound, sort of like “uh-wonk” or “ka-ronk,” these birds give a variety of calls to communicate with other geese, such as alarm, greeting or distress calls. Flying Canada geese are often heard before they are seen. Listen!
Where Does it Live?
The Canada goose is a common migrant in Illinois and a common winter resident in most of the state. It is a common summer resident, too, and some of these birds live year-round in Illinois.
Migration is a regular, annual movement from one area to another. In North America, some Canada geese fly from their breeding grounds in the north to more southern locations where open water and food are easier to find in winter. Some geese stay in areas where the water freezes over for some time, and in those places, these birds often take shelter on the ice at night and when they are not feeding during the day. They fly to farm fields or grassy areas away from the ice to find food. They will move farther south when their food supply declines and/or weather conditions worsen. Other geese are permanent residents where they live because food and open water are available all year. The Canada goose populations in Illinois that migrate into the state from the north come from as far north as central Canada. When interior Canada geese arrive in Illinois during the fall and winter, they often congregate on the same areas used by giant Canada geese. Interior Canada geese leave their nesting grounds in early September, but many of these geese may not move into Illinois until weather conditions in the northern regions make finding food difficult. They may start their return trip as early as mid-January, following the melting snowline northward. Interior Canada geese usually arrive back at the breeding grounds in April, often before all of the snow in that area has melted.
Canada geese stay near a water source throughout the year. They use the water for shelter from land-based predators, and they feed in the water, although they also search for and eat food a long distance from water. Rivers, wetlands, Lake Michigan, other large lakes, ponds and swamps all provide habitat for these birds.
What is the Nesting Season Like?
Canada geese may form male-female pairs when they are one or two years old, but most females do not nest until they are three to five years old. This pair bond lasts for life. If one member of the pair dies, the surviving bird seeks a new mate. Breeding occurs in the spring. A pair of geese tends to return to the same place to nest year after year, but if it is not available, they will nest nearby.
Nesting can start as early as late February in Illinois. The nest is placed near water, often along the bank of a lake or stream. They have also been seen nesting in marshes, on cliffs, on islands, on platforms in trees, on the banks of water bodies, on building roofs, on muskrat houses, on median islands in parking lots, in abandoned bird nests and in other places, some of which may not be ideal for raising young. They will nest in humanmade structures intended for goose nesting, too.
The female leads the male to a possible nest site. If it is suitable, she either starts from the base of a previous nest or makes a new depression in the soil or whatever substance the nest is to be built upon. If she is within reach of plants, she will grab and pluck them with her beak, then add them to the nest. She continues to add materials to the nest as she lays eggs. Starting with about the third or fourth egg, she pulls down feathers from her breast and adds them to the nest. The number of eggs laid varies but is usually from four to seven. The female incubates the eggs while the male guards the nest from a short distance away. She usually leaves the nest once in the early morning and once in the late afternoon each day to eat, drink and clean her feathers. When away from the nest, she covers the eggs with down feathers to keep them warm and protected. The eggs hatch in about four weeks, and all of the eggs in a nest usually hatch within a few hours.
The young birds leave the nest soon after hatching from the eggs. They can walk, swim and feed as they follow their parents. The young geese grow quickly and are able to fly in about two months.
A pair of geese has a territory around the nest that they defend by making sounds, by making threatening postures and, sometimes, by physical contact (biting, charging, beating their wings). They have a tendency to be aggressive to humans, other geese or other animals when they feel that their nest or goslings are threatened.
What Does it Eat?
Canada geese eat a variety of foods including grasses, clovers, corn, soybeans, wheat and aquatic plants. They have adapted to eating mown lawns in urban areas very well.
Does Anything Eat It?
Eggs are preyed upon in the nests by foxes, striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), coyotes (Canis latrans), gulls, raccoons (Procyon lotor) and other predators. Young geese may be captured and eaten by peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) and great horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Adult birds may be taken by eagles, especially if the goose has been injured, or coyotes, but adult geese are aggressive and very few predators will hunt these large birds. Humans, of course, also eat Canada geese!
What Else Should I Know About It?
- Canada geese can live for many years. It is common to find individual Canada geese that are more than 10 years old. Records have been kept that show one wild Canada goose living to at least age 33 years.
- These birds fly in flocks that may vary in size from a single family to hundreds of individuals. They usually fly in a “V” shape or in a line or “string.” They may fly as high as 8,000 feet or more when migrating, but most migrating flocks are within 750 to 3,000 feet from the ground.
- Adult Canada geese molt their flight feathers all at once in summer and are unable to fly for about 45 days until the replacement feathers grow and mature. Adult geese that have a successful nest usually begin molting two to three weeks after the goslings hatch. During the time when the adults and goslings cannot fly, they gather with other Canada geese at areas where there is plenty of food and safety from predators.
- Most Canada geese that do not mate or that have a nest that was not successful undergo a “molt migration.” They leave Illinois between mid-May and early June and may travel north as far as central Canada. Here they molt their flight feathers, then return to the south from August through October. This trip may cover more than 1,000 miles to reach the molting grounds and another 1,000 miles to return to Illinois.
- These birds are strong fliers. It is estimated that they fly at about 40 miles per hour during migration.
- Canada geese have become adapted to human-altered areas like parks, golf courses and suburban neighborhoods that provide them with food, water and nesting space. In some places they are considered to be pests because there are so many geese in small areas, and they deposit large amounts of waste materials. Noise makers, trained dogs and other methods have been used to try to disperse such geese.