BIRD WATCH: Controversial Canada geese come in a variety of shades, sizes

EVERYONE KNOWS A Canada goose when they see one — right?

A little more tricky is knowing which race or subspecies you are looking at.

Decades ago, while talking to Carroll Rieck, manager for the Department of Wildlife’s Nongame Program, I mispronounced this bird’s name. I referred to these geese as “Canadians.”

Carroll was a gentleman with a wonderful sense of humor. He only had to say, “They’re Canada geese, not Canadians.”

Then my current field guide informed me there were at least six different races. I felt like throwing up my hands in despair. Now I had to figure out which race we were seeing?

Several excellent field guides have tackled this subspecies issue among Canada geese. Illustrations, territorial maps and helpful identification tips actually encourage you to try to separate the different races.

Five or six subspecies are covered in these guides, but there is always the caveat “all populations are variable and many intermediate birds can’t be identified.”

One subspecies, the cackling goose, was elevated to full-species status about a half-dozen years ago. This was a good move because there is no problem in identifying a cackling goose or separating them from the larger common Canada.

Increasing numbers

These little geese have a charm about them because they look like miniature Canada geese, about the size of a mallard. Their numbers, for whatever reason, appear to be growing impressively during the past decade, perhaps even longer.

Subspecies among the cacklers include the Richardson’s, Taverner’s, Ridgeway’s and Aleutian races. These smaller birds can be separated from the larger common Canada races by size and their higher-pitched voices.

They also look different. They have shorter necks in proportion to their bodies than the larger birds do. They have small, rounded heads and shorter bills.

They are often seen with flocks of the larger Canada geese as well as with the greater white-fronted and snow geese.

Separating the subspecies within the common Canada geese population can be more challenging. They vary a lot in size.

Field guides will show the “lesser” and the “common.” Unless you have side-by-side comparison, you might as well call the bird a common Canada goose.

One exception to this rule is the “dusky” race. They are darker, especially their breast and undersides. They look muddy.

Canada geese have become unpopular in parts of the Pacific Northwest. They can’t resist golf courses and well-manicured lawns fronting on saltwater beaches and freshwater lakes.

Their most annoying feature is the fact that many of them no longer migrate. They don’t fly north and leave the area “goose-less” for the spring and summer.

These are the smarter birds. Why fly thousands of miles to a more harsh climate when there are all these resort-like places to enjoy?

One point for frustrated homeowners to consider is how their lawn ends near the beach or water.

Instead of encouraging it to run right to the edge, plant a barrier of low-growing shrubs that won’t spoil the view. They will force the geese to fly over the barrier, and they don’t want to do this. They will look for another place to leave the water and rest or feed on the shore. This also looks better than “bird tape.”

The golf courses? They’re already doing something. The eggs of the nesting geese are collected and addled, or shaken. The result is fewer hatched goslings.

There may be some controversial issues when it comes to Canada geese, but I like them. Especially the dainty little cackling goose.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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