At the wildlife rehabilitation clinic I used to volunteer for we would often get a chance to observe the many repeat wild visitors to the property. By far my favorite was a group of Canada geese who frequented a close-by pond. One year, almost every day they would walk about a quarter of a mile down the road from the pond and down the driveway of the rehab center for a visit–no one is quite sure what made them do this. One would even stand by the front door and look in on us to see what was up. If a volunteer was hosing off equipment, the geese would run over to play in the water and try to catch it in their mouths (this, mind you, is something I think all geese enjoy...the patients did it, too, when we would fill up their pools in the enclosures).
Because there were lots of visitors to their pond, these geese were habituated to people, which made them friendly. Despite their friendly nature, we were mindful to keep our interaction to a minimum as they still are wild birds, but it's hard not to enjoy their playful behavior! The group would always cross the pond whenever I hiked or ran passed them–no matter what they were doing, they would look up and make their way over– and would just hang around eating grass while I watched them. This was especially hilarious when the pond was fully or partially frozen, but they still always managed to come over for a visit!
Over the period of two years the group ranged in size from two to seven geese, and they were always a joy to observe. Then, one day, you take notice that they haven’t visited in a while; you think to yourself, “when was the last time I saw them?”, and just as quickly as they entered into your world, they are gone.
This happens frequently when you spend time observing local wildlife, and the only thing to do is enjoy every moment because our relationship with wild animals is fleeting.
I cherish the memories of this particular mini-flock of geese because it made me absolutely fall in love with the species, which is the best benefit of frequent observation of wildlife. For this reason, the sometimes misunderstood Canada goose is the subject of our next Species Spotlight!
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)
For starters, let’s get something out of the way: the honking black, white, and brown-feathered friend you see at the pond is not a Canadian goose, it’s a Canada goose. Unless, of course, it’s super into hockey and maple syrup, then it might be a Canadian goose (eh?).
Also, Canada geese are legitimately referred to as “honkers”, which I find so endearing and hilarious that I may as well stop this article right now because my work here is done.
Aside from their honking, probably the most distinctive characteristic of the Canada goose is their “V” formation as they fly through the air. There have been numerous studies of different species of birds that fly in V-formations and why they do so. It pretty much boils down to this: it makes flying long distances easier! Individual geese are able to draft off of the airflow of the bird in front of them as they fly, allowing them to expend less energy and fly longer than they would be able to if they were alone.
According to the PA Game Commission, there are seven recognized subspecies of Canada geese, three of which can be found in Pennsylvania (two migratory subspecies, and a third resident subspecies that will breed here and also remain over winter–lucky for us!).
The Canada goose population has definitely benefited from our love of large swaths of lawn. They feed on short vegetation, and large, grassy areas provide plenty of room to eat, take off, and land. Bonus points if this grass is right next to a pond, lake, or creek as that is prime real estate for geese (location, location, location, right?) It is this access to convenient food sources that allows for Canada geese to remain year-round for us to enjoy, and for their population to remain very healthy.
Some folks do find these healthy populations of geese to be a nuisance. Canada geese can be rather territorial (especially around breeding season), and large numbers of geese also produce large amounts of goose excrement, which is not their best feature by far.
Fun fact for the dinner table: A group of 50 geese can produce 2.5 TONS of poop in a year
The Canada goose is another species in which males and females pair up and mate for life, which I think often endears them to us humans. They also tend to return to the same breeding spot year after year, so if you are a careful observer of your local wildlife you might get to enjoy an annual treat each spring of seeing that year’s brood. The Canada goose uses the few months it takes to raise young in the spring and early summer to molt and regrow their flight feathers. During this molt there is a period of about three weeks where, like their babies, they are unable to fly. Once their feathers are all set, it’s time for the parents and the kids to take flight!
CANADA GEESE IN REHAB
Remember that special flock that I told you about before? May I melt your cold, cold heart with a little rehab story?
One time, we had two Canada geese brought in separately for different issues from a nearby locations. Now, it’s not uncommon to have multiple adult geese in the facility at any given time in the spring and summer. We had one goose already housed in the intensive care unit, and when we brought the other goose in to recover in a different cage the two geese began honking excitedly at each other!
It was really unusual behavior. Not that geese aren’t noisy on occasion, but to have an immediate reaction at the presence of another goose was something we didn’t see often. We thought maybe they were a part of our local flock and recognized one another. When they were moved to an outside enclosure to continue their recovery we housed them together, and we tried a little experiment when it was time to release them– instead of packing them up and moving them to another location for release, we decided to simply open their cage and see what happened. Well, they waddled out, went up the driveway, and journeyed down the road to the pond! Easiest (and sweetest) release ever!
Rehabilitators often see adult geese come in from suffering from various ailments– vehicle collisions, entanglement issues (see the above photo), and side effects of poisoning or malnutrition. The malnutrition in waterfowl often occurs in places where humans are feeding them a harmful diet of bread, popcorn, or other such unnatural foods. Many of us have fond memories of feeding ducks and geese as children, but the side effects of such a poor diet can be devastating (and those side effects are not immediately seen by the public when they are feeding, but rehabilitators DO see these ailments). If you must feed waterfowl, choose options that won't cause harm such as inexpensive duck feed, cut grapes, or chopped greens such as kale. (And, if you're a parent, you're already cutting up the grapes anyway so, what's a few more?)
Wildlife rehabilitators also get many, MANY goslings...
Unlike, say, a baby songbird, a gosling is precocial at birth (a fancy science word for “able to move about and feed on their own"). Songbirds are altricial, which is a fancy science word for the opposite of that. This is over-simplifying it a bit but, basically, when a young gosling is born it is covered in downy feathers and is able to eat on its own–as long as mom or dad can show them the way.
This is why precocial birds, such as waterfowl, need their parents. If they aren’t around, those babies cannot survive and will need the help of a professional that will keep them warm, dry, fed, and safe until they are able to do so on their own.
When a gosling is brought to a wildlife rehab center for care, that baby is protected and fed until it is able to thrive in the wild. Those fuzzy little goslings end up leaving looking like adults. Releasing healthy animals back into the wild is probably the most satisfying aspect of wildlife rehabilitation, and releasing waterfowl is no exception. While we can't know how another species thinks and feels, it sure looks like they are having a great time when they get to splash, fly, and play in a pond for the first time!
At the time of this blog post, the Canada geese in our area are gearing up to begin nesting and the goslings (AKA "Ryans") will definitely be coming in! Think about donating to your favorite local rehabber, or Help Us Help Wildlife by visiting our donate page!
Hey, look! resources!