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Canada Goose

Scientific name: Branta canadensis

A picture of Canada geese

Canada geese are one of the most familiar wildlife species in New York State. These birds are important for the recreational opportunities they provide and because of problems they can cause. Balancing these two views of Canada geese is a tremendous challenge for wildlife managers, property owners, and communities across the state.

Few people realize that there are distinct populations of Canada geese in New York. Managers often refer to geese that breed in northern Canada and winter in the U.S. as "migratory". These are the honking harbingers of the changing seasons, as waves of high flying geese pass over during spring and fall migration. Geese that breed in southern Canada and the U.S. are referred to as "residents" because they spend most of their lives in one area. Banding studies have shown that resident Canada geese are not simply migrant geese that stopped migrating.

Migratory populations of Canada geese have existed for as long as we know, while the resident population is a recent phenomenon. In the early 1900s, only a handful of Canada geese nested in the wild in New York State. These geese were descendants of captive birds released by private individuals in the Lower Hudson Valley and on Long Island. Local flocks grew rapidly and spread to other areas. During the 1950s and 1960s, game farm geese were released by the State Conservation Department on wildlife management areas in upstate New York (north and west of Albany) to establish local flocks in huntable areas.

Today, New York's resident Canada goose population numbers close to 200,000 birds, with nesting documented all across the state. Combined with populations nesting in other eastern states, there are more than one million year-round resident geese in the Atlantic Flyway. Every fall, these are joined by similar numbers of migratory geese from northern Canada. Resident populations have grown steadily because of milder and more favorable conditions for nesting and survival, while migratory populations have experienced some dramatic ups and downs caused by harsh weather on the breeding grounds and greater exposure to harvest by hunters.

map showing Canada Goose distribution

Biology of "Resident" Canada Geese

Resident geese are long-lived, especially in urban-suburban areas. Some will live more than 20 years. Most resident geese begin breeding when they are 2-3 years old and they nest every year for the rest of their lives. They mate for life, but if one member of a pair dies, the remaining goose will mate again. Geese lay an average of 5-6 eggs per nest, about half of which will hatch and become free-flying birds in the fall. A female goose may produce more than 50 young over her lifetime.

The annual life cycle for resident geese begins in late winter when adult pairs return to nesting areas in late February or March, as soon as waters open up. Egg-laying (1-2 weeks) and incubation (about 4 weeks) generally extend through April, with the peak of hatching in late April or early May, depending on location in the state. Geese will aggressively defend their nests, and may attack if approached. Non-breeding geese often remain nearby in feeding flocks during the nesting season. After hatching, goose families may move considerable distances from nesting areas to brood-rearing areas, appearing suddenly "out of nowhere" at ponds bordered by lawns.

After nesting, geese undergo an annual "molt", a 4-5 week flightless period when they shed and re-grow their outer wing feathers. Molting occurs between mid-June and late July, and the birds resume flight by August. During the molt, geese congregate at ponds or lakes that provide a safe place to rest, feed, and escape danger. Severe conflicts with people often occur at this time of year because the geese concentrate on lawns next to water and cannot leave during that period. Before the molt, some geese without young travel hundreds of miles to favored molting areas. These "molt migrations" account for the disappearance or arrival of some local goose flocks in early June.

After the molt and through the fall, geese gradually increase the distance of their feeding flights and are more likely to be found away from water. Large resident flocks, sometimes joined by migrant geese in October, may feed on athletic fields and other large lawns during the day, and return to larger lakes and ponds to roost at night. This continues until ice or snow eliminates feeding areas and forces birds to other open water areas nearby or to the south, where they remain until milder weather returns and nesting areas open up.

Legal Status

All Canada geese, including resident flocks, are protected by Federal and State laws and regulations. In New York, management responsibility for Canada geese is shared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It is illegal to hunt, kill, sell, purchase, or possess migratory birds or their parts (feathers, nests, eggs, etc.) except as permitted by regulations adopted by USFWS and DEC.