Skip to Content

Cackling Goose Life History

Habitat

Habitat Lakes and Ponds

Cackling Geese breed in subarctic and arctic habitats in Canada and Alaska. The smallest subspecies (minima) breeds mostly on the tundra plains of Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where there are many ponds. Pairs usually select a small island within a pond for nesting. They forage nearby, in lush meadows of sedges and grasses. The next-smallest subspecies (leucopareia) nests on the Aleutian Islands, often on steep grassy slopes above shoreline cliffs. They forage in their nesting habitat, which includes diverse grasses as well as flowering plants such as species of angelica, cow parsnip, buttercup, spring beauty, willow-herb, wild geranium, and violets.

In northern and western Alaska, the largest of the four subspecies (taverneri) selects tundra habitat near rivers, among dwarf willow and other shrubby plants. Farther east, the intermediate-sized subspecies (hutchinsii) nests in high arctic tundra along rivers and in tundra ponds southward into coastal marshlands along the western shore of Hudson Bay. In Nunavut, they also nest on cliffs and steep rocky slopes. A few pairs have nested farther south, in prairie habitat of central Canada, on islands in small lakes.

During migration and winter, Cackling Geese gather in flocks in open, mostly treeless habitats. They forage in freshwater marshes, saltmarshes, mudflats, meadows, and agricultural fields. They rest, bathe, and roost on lakes and reservoirs. Their patterns of distribution during winter often shift according to agricultural practices.

Back to top

Food

Food Plants

Cackling Geese eat mostly plant matter, especially grasses and grasslike plants. Their diet varies remarkably across their large breeding and wintering ranges. For most of their lives, Cackling Geese feed in family groups, both on the breeding and wintering grounds, and families migrate together in autumn, joining with other family groups to form large flocks. They feed by walking slowly and grazing, pulling at the plant and cutting off the preferred part with serrations on the bill. Cackling Geese also forage by digging up the rhizomes and roots of some plants.

On the breeding grounds, they eat sedges, grasses, rushes, spike-rushes, seeds, and even berries, including cranberry, crowberry, and blueberry. During migration and on the wintering grounds, they forage on agricultural crops and waste grain, including wheat, rye, oats, corn, rice, alfalfa, sorghum, barley, soy, and clover. Native plants such as burreed, hornwort, knotweed, and rushes may form part of the diet in freshwater wetlands. In saltmarshes, Cackling Geese may eat plants like saltmeadow hay and eelgrass, but usually these are food for the larger Canada Geese. They also consume pasture and meadow grasses, as well as planted grasses in golf courses, parks, and suburban areas.

Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Ground

The female selects the nest site in tundra among sedges or other short plants, in a dry, elevated patch (hummock), or on an island in a tundra lake.

Nest Description

The female first scrapes the ground and removes some plants before shaping a depression on the ground. She constructs the nest of grasses, sedges, twigs, leaves, lichens, and mosses, and lines it with down feathers as she lays the eggs. The dimensions of nests vary; the inner part of the bowl is usually about 6 inches across.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-8 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Incubation Period:25-28 days
Egg Description:Creamy white.
Condition at Hatching:Covered with down and eyes open. Leaves nest within 24 hours of hatching with the ability to swim and feed.
Back to top

Behavior

Behavior Ground Forager

Cackling Geese partner for life, and they mate during spring migration, as they near their nesting areas. With rare exceptions, they are monogamous. Once returned to the nest site, both male and female are highly territorial, defending the nest vicinity in particular, though the defended territory may be as small as 30 square feet. Smaller territories are common where nesting habitat is at a premium, such as on the Aleutian Islands. In such places Cackling Geese form dense nesting colonies. In some parts of the range, pairs nest solitarily.

Pairs maintain their bond by a simple display called the “triumph ceremony,” performed mostly in spring. In this display, male and female stand near each other, open the wings partly, stretch out the neck, and call in unison. A pair might also perform this display after driving off a rival or a potential predator. Geese defending their nest are bold, running directly at predators with forward-flapping wings. Females incubate the eggs as males guard them, but they take breaks to feed and bathe. During breaks, they cover the eggs with their own down feathers.

Both parents protect the goslings, which are able to walk and forage soon after hatching. The young stay with the parents for the next 12 months or longer, following them toward coastal staging (molting) areas, and on autumn migration. In winter flocks, families are dominant over single, unpaired geese, and family groups may challenge one another in disputes over food. They use threat displays, in which they lower the neck, sometimes raise the wings, open the bill, raise the tongue, hiss, and ruffle the neck feathers. If displays are not effective, they sometimes clash physically. In spring, families migrate northward together, but the yearlings normally do not partner after arriving on the nesting grounds; most do not breed until 2–3 years of age.

Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

Population trends of Cackling Goose are not well known, as the species was for many years combined with Canada Goose, an abundant game species in North America. An exception was the Aleutian subspecies, leucopareia, which was listed under the Endangered Species Act from 1973 through 2001 and thus protected and monitored. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 4.5 million and rates the species an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Cackling Geese are hunted, mostly in autumn, with the harvest in Canada estimated at about 85,000 per year. Other potential conservation threats to the species include pesticides and other pollutants and loss or degradation of habitats, particularly as a result of global climate change.

Back to top

Credits

Banks, R. C., C. Cicero, J. L. Dunn, A. W. Kratter, P. C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen Jr., J. D. Rising and D. F. Stotz. (2004). Forty-fifth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 121 (3):985-995.

Leafloor, J. O., J. A. Moore and K. T. Scribner. (2013). A hybrid zone between Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and Cackling Geese (B. hutchinsii). Auk 130 (3):487-500.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Mowbray, Thomas B., Craig R. Ely, James S. Sedinger and Robert E. Trost. (2002). Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2015). Waterfowl population status, 2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Zimmerman, G., S. Boomer, J. Dubovsky, J. Klimstra, and K. Richkus. (2013). Management Plan for Midcontinent Cackling Geese in the Mississippi Flyway. Available online: https://www.agjv.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Mgmt-Plan-Midcontinent-Cackling-Geese-MF.pdf

Back to top

Need Bird ID Help? Try Merlin

Close Merlin