Geese are more than holiday fare

Canada Geese at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. (Photo by Ruth Ann Angus)

MORRO BAY — In Merry Olde England the Christmas table contained many delicious platters like plum pudding, roasts, codfish cakes, peas porridge and fruit pies. But the epitome of the holiday dinner had to be the main course, the Christmas goose. I suspect that this bird was the domestic variety, grown solely for the purpose of consumption, although wild geese have been and still are hunted in order to grace the holiday table.

The Canada goose is the most widely distributed and best-known wild goose although many people think this bird has been domesticated. This is because you also see large flocks of them at city parks and other urban green spaces. Canada geese have acclimated themselves to modern life.

There are numerous subspecies of Canada Geese and they all look alike except for size, with a long black neck and head, white cheek and chin patches, brown-gray body and wings, pale underparts and white undertail coverts.

The largest of these birds, weighing up to 24 pounds, is known as a “Honker” thanks to its characteristic “ah-honk” call and measures up to 48 inches long with a wingspan of 75 inches.

Canada Geese fly in typical “V” formations with all birds except the leading bird benefitting from the slipstream of the bird in front. Nothing is more thrilling than to witness a flock streaming along with males and females loudly honking to each other.

Here on the Central Coast, we get to see one of the smallest species of goose, Brant, which spend winter months out on Morro Bay feeding on eelgrass. Each autumn they leave their arctic nesting grounds and gather at Izembek Lagoon in western Alaska, where they prepare for their southward journey by feeding in the rich eelgrass beds. Until recently in late October or early November, the entire Brant population of 150,000 birds would leave and fly nonstop for 60 to 75 hours, as far as 3,000 miles with about 80 percent of the population wintering in Baja California, while the rest stayed in estuaries along the California coast.

Climate change has altered this pattern and in recent years many Brant have decided not to migrate at all since winters at Izembek are not as harsh as they once were. In Morro Bay, a reduction in numbers of Brant wintering here could be due to this fact, but the decline in eelgrass in the bay may also be a cause.

In the Central Valley, at wildlife refuges and farm ponds, you will see Greater White-fronted Geese, and Snow and Ross’ Geese.

Greater White-fronted Geese are found in flocks on agricultural land and in marshes and are often found with flocks of Canada Geese. Their orange legs are a distinctive identifying mark.

Snow Geese and their smaller cousins the Ross’ Geese travel in huge flocks numbering in the thousands. They do not fly in the “V” formation but in a U-curved shape. During migration, they fly at high altitudes of more than a thousand feet.

They too graze on agricultural lands and are found in marshes and lagoons. White is a predominant color, thus their name, Snow Goose, but there is a color morph with these birds of dark plumage on the body. These geese are called “Blue.” The two-color types also occur in Ross’ Geese.

All geese mate for life so within any large flock are family groups of pairs and their young of the year. These groups can be distinguished by careful watching of their habits for the families stay together while feeding or resting. In the spring, the young return with the parents to their breeding grounds where they are finally driven off by the gander. Yearling groups are formed that move several hundred miles from their breeding parents.

There is a pecking order amongst the geese that keep mated pairs without families separate from those with young. This behavior extends downward from mated pairs to single adults and then yearlings, each segregated from the other.

Some scientists feel that the geese pairs aren’t as much bonded together as they are both bonded to their nesting area, but there are many cases of unusual fidelity among them.

Geese and other waterfowl are universally recognized as signs of changing seasons and paintings, drawings, and photographs of them are used widely on our holiday cards. Most of us don’t have goose for our Christmas dinner anymore but we all enjoy seeing them on our bays, lakes, ponds, and fields.

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