Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
Winter brings new birds to the Prairie Ridge pond. While some of the regular summer visitors make occasional appearances during the cold months (Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, etc), we also get several winter-specific birds. One winter visitor is a bird many people are familiar with, the Canada Goose, Branta canadensis.
Most people can easily recognize a Canada Goose. They’re large birds with brown backs, tan bellies, and black heads and necks. The bright white line down the cheeks and under the chin is distinctive and obvious from a distance. Like other ducks and geese, Canada Geese have well-webbed feet and wide, relatively flat bills.
You might spot Canada Geese in a wide variety of habitats, but they prefer grassy fields near water. They are thought to prefer these habitats for two reasons. First, their diet consists primarily of grass most of the year, so the fields provide a great source of food. However, open fields also allow the geese to spot predators from far away, giving them plenty of time to flee into the water as the predator attempts to approach.
While grasses and sedges makes up the bulk of the Canada Goose diet in the spring and summer, the geese have a varied diet at other times of year. In the fall, they typically switch to feeding on berries and seeds as grasses become less abundant, and they are also known to feed on agricultural grains. They seem particularly adept at removing dried kernels from corn cobs. Changes in our horticultural practices over the last 50 years have led to some changes in Canada Goose feeding habits, however. Two of the eleven recognized subspecies of Canada Geese live in areas where there is now grass available year-round and feed primarily on grass throughout the year. Some geese are also choosing not to migrate quite so far south, in part because current harvesting practices leave behind a lot of grain waste in fields that the geese can feed on throughout the winter.
Canada Geese have adapted particularly well to life in urban environments, making use of nearly any body of water available. They can form very large flocks and become so numerous in some areas that people consider them a nuisance, especially in parks or in other outdoor spaces frequented by people. In fact, in many areas where the geese have been reintroduced after a decline in numbers, the populations have grown so quickly that they have become a problem. Canada Geese are one of a handful of bird species that have shown an increase in population size with an increase in urbanization.
We don't have Canada Geese at Prairie Ridge every day, but when we do they are usually in the pond or along the grassy shores. We most often see them in pairs, but rarely more than four at a time. Though they are common throughout much of the US, they are still spectacular animals! Next time you're at Prairie Ridge, take a stroll down to the pond and see if you can find any Canada Geese. Take a good look: you might be surprised by just how elegant they are!
Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!
Photo by Chris Goforth