Everything You Need to Know About Geese

Learn how to identify the different types of geese, their migration patterns, habits, and more

GeeseView All Waterfowl

Geese are a group of waterfowl that are generally larger than ducks but smaller than swans. Geese can be found across the world, and in North America there are nine species that regularly occur. Some, like the Canada goose, can be found throughout the United States, while others like the emperor goose and Hawaiian goose can only be found in certain states. Geese can be found near water when swimming and resting, but often prefer feeding on land in open areas such as fields. Geese are familiar birds, and their loudly honking or squawking flocks are a common sight during spring and fall.

View the Emperor Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Emperor Goose

Male and female emperor geese have gray body plumage that is subtly barred with black and white. The white head and hindneck, which are often stained orange-red from feeding in tidal ponds where iron oxide is concentrated, contrast markedly with the dark foreneck. Contrast distinguishes this goose from the blue-morph snow goose, whose entire foreneck and chin are white like the head. The emperor goose's short bill is pink and lacks the black "grinning patch" present in blue geese. The legs and feet of the emperor goose are yellow-orange, while those of the blue goose are pink.

View the Snow Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Snow Goose

The greater snow goose is a slightly larger version of the white-phase lesser snow goose. No color dimorphism has been discovered in this race. In the field it is virtually impossible to tell these two apart. In the hand, the larger size and longer bill of the greater snow goose distinguish it from its smaller counterpart. The sexes are similar in appearance, but the female is often smaller.


Lesser snow geese have two color phases: a dark (blue) plumage and a white (snow) plumage. The two color phases are variations within the same race and do not indicate separate races. The sexes are similar in appearance in both phases, but the female is often smaller. Lesser snow geese can hybridize with Ross' geese, which are similar in appearance. They have pinkish bills with black grinning patches, and the feet and legs are reddish-pink. In the dark phase they have white heads and upper necks, with bluish-gray bodies. In the white phase they are completely white except for black wing tips. The head can be stained rusty brown from minerals in the soil where they feed. They are very vocal and can often be heard from more than a mile away.

View the Ross's Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Ross's Goose

Ross' geese are the smallest of the three varieties of white geese that breed in North America. The Ross' goose is a small white goose with black primary feathers. The bill is a deep reddish-pink with a paler nail and a variably bluish warty area over the base of the basal area. The legs and feet are rose-pink and the iris is dark brown. The sexes are dimorphic, with the female being 6 percent smaller than the male. The Ross' goose has a relatively short neck and lacks the black "grinning patch" that is typical of greater and lesser snow geese, for which it is often mistaken. Ross' geese may be distinguished from snow geese by their smaller size, more rapid wing beat and higher-pitched call.

View the Greater White-fronted Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Greater White-fronted Goose

The Greater white-fronted goose is named for the distinctive white band found at the base of bill. The sexes are similar in appearance, but males typically are larger. The head, neck and upper back of white-fronted geese are grayish-brown. The lower back and rump are dark brown, and the tail is dark brown and edged with white. The chest and breast are grayish with dark brown to black blotches and bars on the breast, giving it the nickname "specklebelly." The belly and upper and lower coverts are white. The bill is pinkish and the legs and feet are orange. Greater white-fronted geese are a long-lived species, with one individual holding the current longevity record for North American waterfowl at 34 years and 7 months.

View the Brant on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID


In North America, two subspecies of brant are recognized, mostly due to differences in plumage characteristics. Atlantic or Pacific (black) brant are separated into subpopulations inhabiting distinct ranges and having genetic variation. Brant are small, dark geese that have large wings, which give them their characteristic strong flight.

Brant have short necks, small heads and bills. All subspecies have a black head, bill, breast, primaries, tail and legs. The otherwise black neck has a series of white striations, called a necklace, near the middle. The color of the belly varies according to subspecies and subpopulation. Both sexes are identical in plumage, except that the male's white necklace is larger than the female's.

View the Barnacle Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle geese have a black chest, neck and crown, with a cream-white face. The sexes are similar in appearance, but males typically are larger. The extension of black from the neck over the head gives the face a hooded appearance. The upper back is black, shading posterior to silver-gray. The breast, sides and flanks are a pale gray and the belly, undertail coverts and rump are white, contrasting markedly with the large black tail. The bill, legs and feet are black.

View the Cackling Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Cackling Goose

Cackling geese resemble Canada geese in appearance. Male cackling geese are slightly larger than females, with both sexes having long, black necks with white chinstraps. The breast, abdomen and flanks range in coloring from a light gray to a dark chocolate brown, either blending into the black neck or being separated from it by a wide white collar. The back and scapulars are darker brown, the rump is blackish and the tail is blackish-brown with a U-shaped white band on the rump. The bill, legs and feet are black.

Cackling geese are a small-bodied group of four subspecies, consisting of the Aleutian, Cackling, Taverner's and Richardson's geese. Cackling geese have proportionally smaller, stubbier, triangular-shaped bills than their Canada goose counterparts.

View the Canada Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Canada Goose

Both sexes of Canada geese have a black head and neck except for broad white cheek patches extending from the throat to the rear of the eye. The female of a breeding pair is often smaller. The breast, abdomen and flanks range in coloring from a light gray to a dark chocolate brown, either blending into the black neck or being separated from it by a white collar. The back and scapulars are darker brown, the rump is blackish and the tail is blackish-brown with a U-shaped white band on the rump. The bill, legs and feet are black. Most subspecies are uniformly large and pale and exhibit the characteristic "honking" call.

There are 7 recognized subspecies of Canada geese: Atlantic, Hudson Bay or Interior, Giant, Moffitt's or Great Basin, Lesser, Dusky and Vancouver. In general, the subspecies nesting farther north are smaller in size and darker in color to the west. The Giant Canada goose is the largest goose in the world, with some individuals weighing more than 20 pounds. They can also be long-lived, with a banded Canada goose at 33 years currently holding the 2nd oldest longevity record for all North American waterfowl.

View the Hawaiian Goose on Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowl ID

Hawaiian Goose

Hawaiian geese have a black face and crown and cream-colored cheeks. The neck is pale grayish streaked with black and has a narrow dark ring at the base. The body plumage and folded wings are gray-brown with transverse barring. The bill, legs and feet are black and the iris is dark brown. Both sexes are similar in appearance, but males typically are larger.

Geese Importance and Benefits

Geese prefer to forage in open fields and when coupled with their need for high energy food during migration, this can often lead them to feed in agricultural crop fields, particularly corn and wheat. In some areas and for certain crop types, damage and economic losses caused by geese can be extremely high, as they reduce grain yields after crops have matured during fall and eat newly emerged sprouts in spring. However, these impacts can be managed or reduced in most locations, and geese in agricultural areas are a valuable resource to waterfowl hunters and viewers. Where possible, conserving natural goose habitat in the form of meadows, wetlands, and waterbodies is essential in maintaining healthy goose populations while encouraging them to avoid cropland.


Breeding and Reproduction

Most geese don’t breed until 3-years old, although a few individuals will attempt to nest during their first or second full summer. Like swans, all species of geese mate for life, but will form new pair bonds if their partner dies. Pair bonding typically begins by age 2 or 3. Most species of geese in North America will start nesting in late winter or spring. Nests usually consist of a scrape in the ground lined with down feathers that the female goose pulls from her belly region. Clutch size varies roughly from 2 to 8 eggs, depending on species and habitat conditions. Newly hatched geese are known as “goslings,” are covered in fluffy down, and are immediately able to swim and feed on their own. However, they still rely on their parents for guidance and protection for several months. Both parents generally help take care of goslings, and the family usually stays together during the subsequent winter.


Migration Patterns of Geese

Most of the goose species in North America are migratory, flying north in spring and south in winter. Geese can travel both during the day and at night and can be found throughout all four waterfowl flyways during migration seasons. Goose migration behavior is influenced by a variety of factors, including weather, time of year, and human disturbance. Migration distance varies between different species of geese. While some species may cross North America during migration, others may not migrate at all.


Geese vs. Ducks

Ducks and geese share many traits, from webbed feet and waterproof feathers to downy offspring and migratory flyways. In general, ducks tend to be smaller than geese, with shorter lifespans. Interestingly, the United States is home to two endemic (found nowhere else in the world) duck species (the Hawaiian duck and Laysan duck) and one endemic goose species (the Hawaiian goose). In general, ducks tend to be more aquatic than geese and are more closely tied to water for feeding. In comparison, geese are more comfortable walking and feeding on land. In contrast to the lifelong pair bonds of geese, most North American duck species only form short-term pair bonds each year. Another difference between ducks and geese is that generally only female ducks care for young, while both male and female geese help raise goslings.


Geese in Urban Environments

Some species of geese are better at adapting to urban areas than others. For example, the Canada goose is a common resident in community parks, golf courses, and yards. Meanwhile, in North America the emperor goose is restricted to isolated areas of Alaska far away from people. However, most geese can adapt to an urban life near people if necessary. In some cases, geese have adapted to urban environments so well that they are year-round residents.

FAQs About Geese

  • Are geese protected by law?Expand Accordion Item

    All species of geese in the United States are managed under a variety of federal and state laws. Although most species can legally be hunted, there are strict seasons, bag limits, and regulations determining how, where, and when they may be hunted.

  • Can you hunt geese?Expand Accordion Item

    Although it varies by state, most species of geese in the United States can be legally hunted in certain areas with the proper permits. The Hawaiian goose is one notable exception and hasn’t been legally huntable in over 100 years.

  • What is the lifespan of a typical goose?Expand Accordion Item

    Although the average goose lifespan varies depending on species and location, geese can live up to 20–30 years in the wild, with some individuals even making it into their mid-40s.

  • What do geese eat?Expand Accordion Item

    Geese primarily eat plant material, including a variety of grasses, roots, seeds, and berries. While some goose species eat whatever they come across, others, such as Brant in the Pacific Flyway, only consume certain types of food (e.g., eelgrass).

  • How far do geese migrate?Expand Accordion Item

    It depends on the species! For example, snow geese migrate from their breeding grounds in far northern Canada to their wintering territory in the southern United States. Meanwhile, the Hawaiian goose is non-migratory.

  • Why do geese fly in a V-formation?Expand Accordion Item

    Geese fly in a V-formation because it is energetically efficient. By flying slightly behind and next to each other, geese can benefit from the slipstream caused by the bird in front of them, rather like a car closely following a big truck. Geese even take turns at who flies in front so no single bird gets too tired!

  • Are geese territorial birds?Expand Accordion Item

    Geese can be very territorial, especially when breeding. While their aggression is usually targeted at other geese, many species will also not hesitate to chase off other animals they consider a threat. In urban areas, this can lead to Canada geese chasing people if they have a nest or brood nearby.

  • How can I deter geese from my property without harming them?Expand Accordion Item

    Deterring geese from your property requires understanding goose biology. Oftentimes, geese are attracted to our properties because of the lawns, ponds, and gardens we also enjoy. Keeping geese away from your property may be as simple as stopping feeding them or allowing lawns to grow taller or may require more effort such as building a short fence or actively chasing them away. Please contact your state wildlife agency for specific assistance and recommendations.

  • How do geese communicate with each other?Expand Accordion Item

    Geese communicate with each other through a variety of vocalizations including honks, hisses, and calls. Certain sounds may be accompanied by a physical movement in the form of a display, allowing geese to communicate both audibly and visually.

  • What is the difference between Canada geese and other species of geese?Expand Accordion Item

    Canada geese are one of nine species of geese regularly found in North America. Some populations are especially well-adapted to living near humans, and are often familiar residents in parks, golf courses, and urban ponds. Although these geese are usually easy to identify, they may be confused with the similar looking but smaller cackling goose.