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Canada geese adapt and thrive

May 8, 2010
By Garry Brandenburg

CANADA GEESE are very common today. Such was not the case a century ago. In 1943-44, the Mississippi flyway population was estimated to be 76,000. But this adaptable species has grown in population to surplus status, especially in urban areas. Every marsh, farm pond, lakeside setting, small creek sites and river shorelines can be home to the Canada. In 1989, the population was near 1.9 million birds, a nine fold increase.

Canada geese are native only to North America. They have a conspicuous white cheek patch on an all black head. The body feathers are mottled gray. Leg color is black. Canada's come in several sizes with the largest called the Giant Canada goose. Noted long time waterfowl biologist Frank Belrose finally settled on 11 subspecies nationwide. In the Mississippi flyway, of which Iowa is a part, there are four subspecies we are likely to encounter. They are the giant (Branta canadensis maxima), interiors (B. c. interior), lesser (B. c. parvipes) and Richardson's Canada goose ( B. c. hutchinsii).

As subspecies go, the smallest is called the cackling goose (B. c. minima) which nests in Alaska. It will weigh only 2 to 4 pounds. The Giant Canada goose can weigh up to 16 pounds. That is a lot of bird to get airborne and the powerful muscles of the chest are up to the job. They make flight look easy once the initial work of takeoff is obtained. Landing is a combination of a graceful glide and controlled loss of altitude as huge cupped wings are set to make pin-point landings on water or land.

Article Photos

A Canada goose sits on her muskrat mountain top nest in a wetland south of Albion. The determined bird poses as low on the vegetation as possible to try to make herself less conspicuous. Mid-week, most likely last Wednesday,her eggs hatched and five little yellow fuzz-balls of baby Canada geese followed mom and dad into the nearby water for safety and to look for food. All waterfowl young are termed precocious, meaning that their mental development is advanced for their age. They instinctively know how search for and find food. All the parent birds need do is lead them through a wetland habitat that has food. Parent birds protect the goslings from land and water based predators.

Canadas are strong fliers capable of moving more than 1,400 miles between wintering grounds and breeding areas. They can fly for 650 miles if need be without stopping at an average speed of 40 miles per hour. Ground speeds of 90 mph have been documented if a tailwind assists them. Flying altitudes range from a few hundred feet to over 8,000 feet. Geese fly in "V" formations in part because the eddies of wind from the lead bird's wingtips make it more energy efficient for each succeeding bird to space themselves to the right and left of the leader. When the lead goose gets tired, it can drop back, pick a spot and allow another bird to lead.

Canada geese navigate by use of several sources. At times they follow natural landmarks; things they have grown familiar with in a home territory are frequently used. Rivers and mountains are obvious landmarks. They can and do use the position of the sun, stars, and the earth's magnetic fields. When live trapped in one state and moved to another, many of the geese fly back to where they came from. Band returns have documented this. That is why live trapping urban geese and physically moving them out of state is a waste of time and resources.


A friend told me of an observation of a hen wood duck. It is amazing that this species, a cavity nesting waterfowl, can enter its nesting cavity without injury from what appears to be top speed flight. Normally a mixture of mature and young trees in a river bottomland forest provides enough trees with old rotten branch sites that are now open holes of just the right size for a woody hen. However, this species is adaptable to artificial nest boxes of wood or metal.

It is the metal can type artificial nest box that was the subject of the above observation. A male and female wood duck were flying fast and low near the nest box when suddenly there was only one duck, the colorful male. The hen woody had slipped right into the 4 x 3 inch oval entrance hole. Someplace, somewhere, a devoted waterfowl photographer with high end equipment has probably set up his/her cameras to record in super slow motion just how the hen does this without injury. When I find this source, I'll be studying it closely.

At many public and private sites within Marshall County, Mike Stegmann has built and installed more than 250 of the metal can type wood duck nest boxes. He uses two empty Freon cans, cuts them in half, and uses the two bottom halves to create the new box. A hinge on the side and a bit of metal cloth on the inside for duckling toenail traction is all that is needed. An oval entry hole of 3 inches by 4 inches is cut in the top half of the canister. A metal rod attached to the back of the box allows it to slip into a metal pipe anchor post.

Check out these nest boxes from a distance with binoculars or spotting scope. You may be lucky enough to see the hen pop in or out of the box.


Speaking of binoculars, consider the advantages these tools can play in any outdoor or wildlife viewing situation. Binoculars draw the image seemingly closer by magnifying a narrow range of view. Popular sizes are 8 x 32 or 8 x 40 for most observations. The variety and quality tend to go hand-in-hand with its cost. Buy the best you can afford.

Binocs make any day in the field more enjoyable. Birders are well known for this tool to help identify markings on avian critters. Every hunter of waterfowl or game uses them too. Sporting events of all kinds will become more fun when you can choose the action you want to concentrate on. For me, binoculars are essential and I use them all the time.


There are still a few spaces available in the Uncle Ike's Day Camp for students who have completed grades first through fifth. The camp dates are June 30 July 2 from 9 a.m. 2 p.m. at the Izaak Walton League grounds. Cost is $15/per child. This year's theme is "Trash to Treasure Adventure". Call 752-5490 to register.


You can't expect an empty bag to stand up straight. Fill it with morel mushrooms.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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