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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Understanding Waterfowl: Story of the Giants

A closer look at the remarkable comeback of the giant Canada goose 
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  • photo by Mike Khansa
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—By David A. Graber and John M. Coluccy, Ph.D.

Waterfowl biologists believe there may be more Canada geese in North America today than at any time in history. Much of this abundance can be attributed to soaring populations of giant Canada geese. There are many misconceptions about the origins of these "resident" geese. Some believe they are wild birds that have lost their migratory instincts; others think they are semi-domesticated versions of barnyard geese. Actually, neither of these beliefs is true.

The giant Canada goose is the largest of seven generally recognized subspecies. Historically, the nesting range of these large geese extended from the prairies of southern Canada across the Upper Midwest to the Great Lakes and south through the Mississippi River Valley to Tennessee. Lewis and Clark observed Canada geese—almost certainly giants—nesting near the Missouri River during their westward journey in 1804. 

By the early 20th century, however, giant Canada geese had been extirpated throughout most of their range as a result of unregulated hunting, egg collecting, and habitat destruction. In fact, this subspecies was thought to be extinct for nearly three decades until Harold C. Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey discovered a small remnant population near Rochester, Minnesota, during the early 1960s. Other isolated populations, including captive flocks kept by aviculturists, were subsequently identified and served as sources for restoration efforts led by conservation agencies. These birds were larger than other Canada geese and didn't migrate in fall, which gave rise to the common misconception that they had domestic origins.  

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