Vail Daily column: Curious Nature: Canada goose, not too bad, eh?
Ryan Summerlin April 6, 2013
A wide variety of things are safe to call Canadian: Trivial Pursuit, which was invented by two Canadians in 1979; peanut butter, brought to us in 1884 by the Canadian Marcellus Gilmore Edson; walkie-talkies; snow blowers (not surprising); and the ever-popular Michael J. Fox and Dan Aykroyd – all Canadian. However, a certain goose, and its 11 subspecies, should only be called Canadian if its egg hatched on soil belonging to the Great White North. Otherwise a simple “Canada” will do.
The Canada goose (branta canadensis) is a large waterbird with a long black neck, black head, and white cheeks and chinstrap. They are found almost anywhere close to lakes, rivers, ponds or small bodies of water, as well as in our parks, yards, farms and golf courses. A well-manicured lawn gives geese plenty of food, since they can digest grass, as well as a clear view of any predators. Lawns that are maintained up to waterlines are an especially popular place for a Canada goose to take their goslings (young) to munch on aquatic vegetation. Other dining options include sedges, skunk cabbage, berries, seeds, and even corn kernels. When full grown, geese can weigh anywhere from 6.5 pounds up to 20! Although geese are typically smaller the farther north they live, and have darker plumage the farther west.
Many Canada geese migrate as winter approaches; however with recent changes in farm practices (that have made grain more available to the geese in fall and winter) and changes in weather, some migratory populations aren’t traveling as far south. In some cases, such as in California and the Great Lakes region, traditionally migratory geese aren’t migrating anymore due to mild climates, a solid food supply and fewer predators. Colorado is home to both year-round populations of Canada geese as well as migratory flocks in the southwest corner during the winter months. Most species, regardless of migratory or resident tendencies, will move north during the late summer months to molt, or shed and re-grow their flight feathers.
Just underneath those flight feathers, we find something that humans are drawn to. We love those fluffy down feathers for our jackets and sleeping bags because they help keep us warm, just as they do the goose. If a goose is too warm, then they can flatten their down feathers to reduce air space. But when the temperatures drop and the geese get cold, they plump up these feathers, increasing the air space between the top feathers and their body, making an excellent insulating layer, much like our outerwear. They can use those down feathers to line their nests and help keep their eggs nice and warm while they incubate. The female will actually pull out her own down feathers to cover the eggs, which also aids in keeping them hidden from foxes, ravens, raccoons and other egg eating predators.
When threatened, the Canada goose is known to stand its ground, being an aggressive bird when it comes to protecting its mate and their offspring. If the goose is hissing at you and spreading its wings, it’s important to keep calm, back away slowly and not turn your back on it, much like you would do if dealing with an angry Canadian hockey player. Relax; enjoy some poutine (a Canadian dish made with French fries, gravy and cheese curds) and, when it comes to the Canada goose, marvel at the fact that nature is always curious.
Rachel Solomon is the lead naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. When not busy skiing or snowshoeing, you can find her eating ice cream near a warm fire. Let’s go Wings!