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Canada Goose

Branta canadensis ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Canada Goose Photo

A familiar and widespread goose with a black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan to cream breast and brown back. Has increased in urban and suburban areas in recent years; just a decade or two after people intentionally introduced or reintroduced “giant” Canada Geese to various areas, they are often considered pests.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
29.9–43.3 in
76–110 cm
Wingspan
50–66.9 in
127–170 cm
Weight
105.8–317.5 oz
3000–9000 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Mallard, smaller than a Mute Swan
Other Names
  • Ganso canadiense (Spanish)
  • Bernache du Canada (French)

Cool Facts

  • At least 11 subspecies of Canada Goose have been recognized, although only a couple are distinctive. In general, the geese get smaller as you move northward, and darker as you go westward. The four smallest forms are now considered a different species: the Cackling Goose.
  • Some migratory populations of the Canada Goose are not going as far south in the winter as they used to. This northward range shift has been attributed to changes in farm practices that makes waste grain more available in fall and winter, as well as changes in hunting pressure and changes in weather.
  • Individual Canada Geese from most populations make annual northward migrations after breeding. Nonbreeding geese, or those that lost nests early in the breeding season, may move anywhere from several kilometers to more than 1500 km northward. There they take advantage of vegetation in an earlier state of growth to fuel their molt. Even members of "resident" populations, which do not migrate southward in winter, will move north in late summer to molt.
  • The “giant” Canada Goose, Branta canadensis maxima, bred from central Manitoba to Kentucky but was nearly driven extinct in the early 1900s. Programs to reestablish the subspecies to its original range were in many places so successful that the geese have become a nuisance in many urban and suburban areas.
  • In a pattern biologists call “assortative mating,” birds of both sexes tend to choose mates of a similar size.
  • The oldest known wild Canada Goose was 30 years 4 months old.

Habitat


Marsh

Canada Geese live in a great many habitats near water, grassy fields, and grain fields. Canada Geese are particularly drawn to lawns for two reasons: they can digest grass, and when they are feeding with their young, manicured lawns give them a wide, unobstructed view of any approaching predators. So they are especially abundant in parks, airports, golf courses, and other areas with expansive lawns.

Food


Seeds

In spring and summer, geese concentrate their feeding on grasses and sedges, including skunk cabbage leaves and eelgrass. During fall and winter, they rely more on berries and seeds, including agricultural grains, and seem especially fond of blueberries. They’re very efficient at removing kernels from dry corn cobs. Two subspecies have adapted to urban environments and graze on domesticated grasses year round.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.3 in
8.3 cm
Egg Width
2.2 in
5.6 cm
Incubation Period
25–28 days
Nestling Period
42–50 days
Egg Description
Creamy white.
Condition at Hatching
Hatchlings are covered with yellowish down and their eyes are open. They leave the nest when 1-2 days old, depending on weather, and can walk, swim, feed, and even dive. They have enough energy remaining in their yolk sac to survive 2 days before feeding.
Nest Description

A large open cup on the ground, made of dry grasses, lichens, mosses, and other plant material, and lined with down and some body feathers.

Nest Placement

Ground

On the ground, usually on a muskrat mound or other slightly elevated site, near water. They prefer a spot from which they can have a fairly unobstructed view in many directions. Female selects the site and does much of nest construction. She adds down feathers and some body feathers beginning after the second egg is laid. She does all the incubation while her mate guards her and the nest.

Canada Goose Nest Image 1
© Gerrit Vyn

Canada Goose Nest Image 2
© Gerrit Vyn

Behavior


Ground Forager

Canada Geese eat grain from fields, graze on grass, and dabble in shallow water by tipping forward and extending their necks underwater. During much of the year they associate in large flocks, and many of these birds may be related to one another. They mate for life with very low “divorce rates,” and pairs remain together throughout the year. Geese mate “assortatively,” larger birds choosing larger mates and smaller ones choosing smaller mates; in a given pair, the male is usually larger than the female. Most Canada Geese do not breed until their fourth year; less than 10 percent breed as yearlings, and most pair bonds are unstable until birds are at least two or three years old. Extra-pair copulations have been documented.

During spring, pairs break out from flocks and begin defending territories. Spacing of these pairs is variable and depends on availability of nest sites and population density; where population is large, even after a great many fights birds may end up nesting in view of one another, and some populations are semi-colonial.

Canada Goose threat displays may involve head pumping, bill opened with tongue raised, hissing, honking, and vibrating neck feathers. When an intruding goose doesn’t retreat, geese may grab each other by breast or throat and hit each other with their wings. Fighting may result in injuries.

Female selects nest site, builds nest, and incubates eggs. She may brood goslings in cold, wet, or windy weather and while they’re sleeping for first week after hatching. Male guards the nest while female incubates.

Soon after they hatch, goslings begin pecking at small objects, and spend most of their time sleeping and feeding. They remain with their parents constantly, though sometimes “gang broods” form, especially in more southern latitudes. These can include at least two broods, and sometimes five or more, that travel, feed, and loaf together, accompanied by at least one adult.

Young often remain with their parents for their entire first year, especially in the larger subspecies. As summer wanes birds become more social; they may gather in large numbers at food sources; where food is limited and patchy, may compete with displays and fights.

In winter, Geese can remain in northern areas with some open water and food resources even where temperatures are extremely cold. Geese breeding in the northernmost reaches of their range tend to migrate long distances to winter in the more southerly parts of the range, whereas geese breeding in southern Canada and the conterminous United States migrate shorter distances or not at all. Individuals tend to return to the same migratory stopover and wintering areas year after year. Spring migration may be difficult for observers to track because of over-wintering birds and movements between nighttime resting areas and feeding areas, but the bulk of spring migratory movements tend to move north behind the retreating snow line, where the temperature is averaging 35 degrees.

Migrating flocks generally include loose aggregations of family groups and individuals, in both spring and fall. Flights usually begin at dusk, but may begin anytime of day, and birds fly both night and day. They move in a V formation, with experienced individuals taking turns leading the flock.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Canada Geese are common and increasing in much of North America. The proliferation of lawns, golf courses, and parks offers Canada Geese such reliable habitat that in some areas the birds stay all year round instead of migrating like they used to do. Recently, some communities have had to begin considering some Canada Geese as nuisances (for eating grass or fouling lawns) or even hazards (around airports, where collisions with planes can be very dangerous). Some 2.6 million Canada Geese are harvested by hunters in North America, but this does not seem to affect its numbers.

Credits

  • Mowbray, Thomas B., Craig R. Ely, James S. Sedinger and Robert E. Trost. 2002. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 682 (A. Poole, Ed.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Manning, T. H. 1978. Measurements and weights of eggs of the Canada Goose, Branta canadensis , analyzed and compared with those of other species. Can. J. Zool. 56: 676–687.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity records of North American Birds.

Range Map Help

Canada Goose Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. Some birds that breed in the High Arctic fly to the southern United States for winter.

Backyard Tips

Mowing and maintaining lawns down to the water’s edge, or maintaining very large lawns anywhere near water are open invitations to Canada Geese. Plastic mesh placed over grass usually discourages them from walking on a lawn.

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

During summer, and increasingly at other times of year, Canada Geese are fairly easy to see, swimming in open water, resting near shore, or grazing on lawns or farm fields. They are often heard flying above, by day or night; if you study their honks you may notice the difference by sound when other species of geese or swans are flying.

Get Involved

Look for Canada Goose nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Report your Canada Goose sightings to eBird

You Might Also Like

All About Birds Blog, Where Did All Those Canada Geese in Town Come From?, September 2013.

Ducks Unlimited Canada: Facts on Canada Geese

Unsafe Haven: Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska. Story and photos in Living Bird magazine.