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Snow Goose Life History


Lakes and PondsSnow 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.Back to top


PlantsSnow 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundAccompanied 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:3.1-3.3 in (7.9-8.3 cm)
Egg Width:2.0-2.2 in (5.1-5.5 cm)
Incubation Period:24 days
Nestling Period:1 day
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.
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Ground ForagerSnow 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.Back to top


Low Concern

Snow Goose numbers have grown rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, possibly because of warming conditions on their arctic breeding grounds. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 16 million and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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 permitting extra hunting to reduce Snow Goose populations. Between 445,000 and 548,000 Snow Geese were hunted annually in the U.S. and Canada from 2019 to 2021. 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, which not only reduces their own breeding success but also compromises 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 steel shot or other nontoxic ammunition.

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

Mowbray, Thomas B., Fred Cooke and Barbara Ganter. (2000). Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens), 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.

Raftovich, R. V., K. K. Fleming, S. C. Chandler, and C. M. Cain (2021). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2019–20 and 2020-21 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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