For waterfowlers, giant Canada geese now provide abundant hunting opportunities in areas where geese were once rare or absent. The annual U.S. Canada goose harvest has soared from an average of less than 500,000 birds during the mid-1960s to more than 2.5 million in recent years. Much of this harvest increase can be attributed to the growth of giant Canada goose populations. In the early 1980s, giant Canada geese comprised only about 15 percent of the total Canada goose harvest in the Mississippi Flyway. This proportion increased to 40 percent in 1986–1990, 57 percent in 1991–1995, and more than 70 percent by 2010.
While nuisance goose issues have received plenty of attention lately and are indeed a serious problem in many areas, giant Canada geese remain a valuable resource appreciated by large segments of society. Their widespread distribution, year-round presence, and tolerance of humans make them ideal subjects for photography, ecological research, nature study, and environmental education. And for those of us with a passion for waterfowl, they offer a welcome connection to the wild in suburban settings.
David Graber is a regional conservation coordinator and Dr. John Coluccy is director of conservation planning at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
North America's White-Cheeked Geese
Canada geese are among the most diverse and widely distributed waterfowl in North America. Today, Canada geese nest from the Arctic to the southern United States. Generally, smaller Canada geese nest farther north, while the larger ones nest in the southern part of the breeding range.
Small Canada geese can complete their breeding cycle in a shorter time than large subspecies, but are less tolerant of cold temperatures. As a result, small geese winter farther south than their larger cousins. Small Canadas also exhibit stronger migratory instincts because of the need to vacate their breeding grounds before the harsh Arctic winter arrives. In contrast, large-bodied Canada geese nest in more temperate regions, where a longer growing season accommodates their extended nesting and brood-rearing period. Their greater body size also allows them to winter farther north than their smaller cousins.
The considerable variation in size, appearance, and geographic distribution among Canada geese has caused considerable debate among taxonomists about how to classify these birds. For many years, waterfowl biologists recognized 11 subspecies of Canada geese, based mainly on body size and shape, plumage characteristics, and degree of geographic isolation among groups.
However, in 2004, authorities declared the four smaller races of Canada geese as a separate species known as the cackling goose. This decision was based on DNA analysis, which allowed taxonomists to trace the birds' lineage through genetics. Of the remaining seven generally recognized subspecies of Canada geese, the giant Canada goose is the largest, having an average adult weight of 12.5 pounds, compared to less than three pounds for some cackling geese.
SUMMER TRAVEL In addition to their migrations to and from breeding and wintering areas, many giant Canada geese also migrate long distances during summer to molting areas. These summer movements, which typically involve only sub-adult and nonbreeding adult geese, are known as molt migrations.