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Snow Goose

Chen caerulescens ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Watching huge flocks of Snow Geese swirl down from the sky, amid a cacophony of honking, is a little like standing inside a snow globe. These loud, white-and-black geese can cover the ground in a snowy blanket as they eat their way across fallow cornfields or wetlands. Among them, you might see a dark form with a white head—a color variant called the “Blue Goose.” Snow Geese have skyrocketed in numbers and are now among the most abundant waterfowl on the continent.

Bird Festivals
Birds of North America Online

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
27.2–32.7 in
69–83 cm
Wingspan
54.3 in
138 cm
Weight
56.4–116.4 oz
1600–3300 g
Other Names
  • Oie blanche, Oie bleue, Oie des neiges (French)
  • Ganso blanco (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Snow Goose hunting in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had recovered. Since then, their populations have continued to grow, to the point that some areas of tundra nesting habitat are starting to suffer.
  • The dark color of the blue morph Snow Goose is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partially dominant over white. If a pure dark goose mates with a white goose, the offspring will all be dark (possibly with white bellies). If two white geese mate, they have only white offspring. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark offspring, but might have a few white ones too.
  • Snow Geese chicks are well developed when they hatch, with open eyes and down-covered bodies that already show whether the adult will have white or dark plumage. Within a few days they are able to maintain a constant body temperature on their own. They grow very quickly, with the males outpacing the females.
  • The creamy white eggs of Snow Geese stain easily. People can sometimes tell what order the eggs were laid in, just by the color of the shells (the dirtiest shells belong to the oldest eggs).
  • In wintering and migrating flocks that are feeding, lookouts keep an eye out for eagles and other predators. Upon sighting a threat they call out to the rest of the flock, which may take flight.
  • Snow Geese make epic journeys by air, but they are impressive on foot, too. Within the first three weeks of hatching, goslings may walk up to 50 miles with their parents from the nest to a more suitable brood-rearing area. Molting Snow Geese can outrun many predators.
  • Females forage up to 18 hours a day once they arrive at breeding grounds, but eat little once they begin incubating the eggs.
  • Food passes through the Snow Goose’s digestive tract in only an hour or two, generating 6 to 15 droppings per hour. The defecation rate is highest when a goose is grubbing for rhizomes, because such food is very high in fiber and the goose inevitably swallows mud.
  • The oldest Snow Goose on record, shot in Texas in 1999, was 27 and a half.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Snow Geese breed in colonies on Canadian and Northern Alaskan tundra in the vicinity of the coast, from the high arctic to the subarctic. They choose areas near ponds, shallow lakes, coastal salt marshes, or streams (including river islands), preferring rolling terrain that loses its snow early and escapes flooding during spring thaw. Snow Geese form three separate regional populations—eastern, central, and western—distinctions that are more or less preserved as the geese migrate to their wintering grounds. After chicks hatch, families move to brood-rearing territories with a lot of grasses and bryophytes, including tidal marshes and wet areas near ponds. During spring and fall migration along all four major North American flyways, geese frequently stop in open areas like lakes, farm fields, protected freshwater and brackish marshes, sluggish rivers, and sandbars. They winter in regions on both American coasts as well as in some inland areas, frequenting open habitats like marshes, grasslands, marine inlets, freshwater ponds, and agricultural fields.

Food


Plants

Snow Geese are vegetarians with voracious appetites for grasses, sedges, rushes, forbs, horsetails, shrubs, and willows. They will consume nearly any part of a plant—including seeds, stems, leaves, tubers, and roots—either by grazing, shearing plants off at ground level, or ripping entire stems from the ground. In winter and during migration they also eat grains and young stems of farm crops, along with a variety of berries. Goslings may eat fruits, flowers, horsetail shoots, and fly larvae.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.1–3.3 in
7.9–8.3 cm
Egg Width
2–2.2 in
5.1–5.5 cm
Incubation Period
24 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Elongated oval with variable texture. Creamy white but easily staining to dirty gray.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes open and body fully covered with down.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest by herself, working at any time of day. She starts with a simple scrape in the earth, but as she lays more eggs she adds fluffy down feathers plucked from her own breast (sometimes in very large amounts) and may add material like sea-lyme grass, eelgrass, leaves and twigs of willow and birch, or seaweed. The less protected the site, the heftier the nest: they range from 3 to 6.5 feet across.

Nest Placement

Ground

Accompanied by the male, the female chooses a nest site, typically sheltered among vegetation like sea-lyme grass or willows, along with rocks or small shrubs. They build nests on dry ground when possible—although, being close to melted snow, the site is often moist. They use island sites or areas near to small ponds when those are available. The female sometimes starts several scrapes before choosing the final location. She may lay the first egg within an hour of selecting the site.

Behavior


Dabbler

Snow Geese are strong fliers, walkers, and swimmers (even capable of diving short distances when threatened). Their main activities are feeding and resting: they forage on foot and sleep while sitting, standing on one leg, or swimming. During migration and winter, they roost mainly at night and afloat. Snow Geese stay with the same mate for life, choosing an individual of the same color morph (white or “blue”) as the family members they grew up with. The female incubates the eggs and nestlings, spending 21 or more hours per day on the nest, while the male stands guard to defend females and nest sites against predators and other Snow Geese. The male may leave the female to defend the nest herself for extended periods. During the breeding season, eggs and nestlings are at risk from arctic and red foxes, Glaucous Gulls, Herring Gulls, Parasitic Jaegers, caribou, polar and black bears, gray wolves, Common Ravens, Long-tailed Jaegers, and Snowy Owls. Adults may be hunted by foxes, wolves, bears, Bald Eagles, or Golden Eagles, more so during nesting season than during migration and winter.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Snow Goose numbers have grown rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, possibly because of warming conditions in their arctic breeding grounds. Populations in the eastern and western arctic have tripled since 1973, and the central arctic population has grown by a factor of 25. These birds can be found breeding in the far north of Canada and winter principally in the U.S. and Mexico. Snow Geese are federally protected migratory game birds, and their hunting is managed on a population-by-population basis. Throughout much of the twentieth century management officials restricted hunting in the interest of conservation, but by the 1970s they switched to worrying about keeping goose numbers in check. In the late 1990s both Canada and the United States began to permit extra hunting to reduce Snow Goose populations. About 400,000 Snow Geese are now hunted annually in the U.S. and Canada. Because Snow Geese nest in remote areas, their breeding colonies have suffered little impact from humans. The geese themselves may degrade their own habitat by grubbing vigorously for food during the early breeding season, not only reducing their own breeding success but also compromising nesting shorebirds. Like many waterfowl, Snow Geese can suffer from lead poisoning when they ingest fallen lead shot while foraging. This problem can be reduced by switching to copper ammunition.

Credits

Range Map Help

Snow Goose Range Map
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Migration

Medium-distance migrant. All populations migrate, making long flights broken up by long stopovers in staging areas. They fly quickly and at high altitudes in narrow flight lanes, heading more or less due south from the breeding grounds to a wintering site at roughly the same longitude. Some Snow Geese that winter in western North America breed in Siberia, and some that winter along the Atlantic coast breed in Greenland.

Find This Bird

Look for Snow Geese in open fields and bodies of water in their wintering grounds across the United States, or passing high overhead during migration. During spring and fall migration, the geese will stop over in open habitats along the four major North American flyways. If the geese are around, they’ll be hard to miss: a cacophony of honks accompanying a huge flock either on the ground or in the air.

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