Wildlife & Biodiversity

Canada goose, a prominent symbol of North American wildlife

The species that feeds predominantly on aquatic and terrestrial vegetation has a pan-continental distribution

By Saikat Kumar Basu
Last Updated: Friday 16 August 2019
A female Canada geese standing by her nest outside the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Saikat Kumar Basu
A female Canada goose standing by her nest outside the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Saikat Kumar Basu A female Canada goose standing by her nest outside the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Saikat Kumar Basu

North America is the continent of great ecological variations, rich biodiversity and enormous beauty stretching from Greenland and Canada in the north, across the United States of America into Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Belize, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama) and the Caribbean islands. The wide stretch of the continent from north to south includes a number of different ecological and agro-climatic regions that add to its tremendous biodiversity.

The United States of America and Mexico are two mega biodiverse countries that showcase a vast multitude of species of flora and fauna. The continent is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Atlantic Ocean in the east adding to major biogeographical regions not seen in other parts of the world.

Among this wide diversity of spectacular species inhabiting this continent, one iconic species that stands out as an ambassador of the American wild is the Canada goose that has pan-continental distribution.

Taxonomists have classically divided Canada geese into eight different sub-species from the eastern Atlantic across the vast plains and prairies, the mountains to the Pacific in the east. However, modern day molecular biologists do not agree with the sub-division.

There is a difference of opinion among scientists regarding the actual number of sub-species of Canada geese across the continent of North America. However, there is no doubt about the pan-continental distribution of this majestic wild species of bird across the continent of North America from Canada in the north across the USA to Mexico and in some parts of Central America and the Caribbean islands.

Most sub-species of the Canada geese like spending their summer in the warmer parts of the great northern plains as well as around the coastal region and then move to southern US and northern Mexico and to some parts of the Central America and the Caribbean islands during the winter as a part of their annual fall migration.

However, researchers have been reporting an increasing number of geese as resident sub-populations who are now staying back in the winter and avoiding their long migration most possibly due to access to food sources during winter and their high adaptability to severe North American winter.

Canada geese are highly territorial and like defending their territories against any possible intruder including other Canada geese. They usually like nesting adjacent to water bodies like ponds, pools, swamps, bogs, lakes and slow flowing stream and rivulets. They feed predominantly on aquatic and terrestrial vegetation.

The geese are also known to eat aquatic insects, crustaceans and molluscs to supplement their diet sometimes depending on food availability. They are known to flock in huge numbers in local parks and agricultural fields or in the golf courses.  They do considerable damage to new germinating grasses and crops and, therefore are, often considered pests in some parts of the continent.

However, due to successful conservation practices, their numbers have multiplied several folds over past decades and are considered over populated in some parts of the continent. Both male and females look similar with their characteristic beautiful brown, black and white feathers. But the males are slightly larger than the females. They mate for life and are known to be extremely devoted parents.

During the summer breeding season, the geese pair may lay 2-20 eggs depending on easy availability of food and shelter, predation pressure, access to water bodies and supportive weather conditions.

The geese have some natural predators that mostly predate on their eggs, goslings and young or juvenile chicks. Adult birds are seldom predated unless injured or disabled due to natural and/or anthropogenic factors. The natural predators include mostly raptors like owls and hawks, and mammals like coyote, fox, badger, skunk, raccoon etc.

The number of hatchlings varies from year to year depending on predation pressure. The adult geese are extremely protective of their nest, eggs and goslings and attack and defend any predator to the best of their abilities.

In some instances, attacks on humans who intruded or got too close have also been reported and/or recorded too. They usually raise alarms by their loud calls or a hissing noise to ward off intruders or to alert others of their kind.

The Canada geese represent an iconic symbol of the wild in North America. The sound of the geese during their fall migration is a crystal stick of the landscape of the North American continent and symbolises the beauty and bounty of nature there.

The geese has been an important mythical being for the aboriginals of this continent and are an integral part of their numerous stories, legends, songs, poems and contemporary art works.

Many aboriginal groups have history of long association with the Canada geese making them an important integral part of their unique culture. The Canada geese has been recognised as a dominant wildlife symbol in both currency and postage stamps in the Canada and the US suggesting  its abundance, beauty and integrity with the socio-cultural life of the continent of North America.

The Canada geese represent more than just wildlife or an avian species from this continent, but an ethnic, economic and social cultural linkage to the people. This majestic species of bird is an iconic wildlife symbol for the spirit and vitality of the continent of North America.

(This column is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Down To Earth)

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