I always looked forward to October when I was in Ottawa because it would bring whole squadrons of migrating geese to the Rideau Canal. Scores would take off and land at all hours from this busy waterway, honking all the while as they soared into the autumn sunset.
Canada geese are tough, adaptable birds that some see as a national symbol, said Pat Kehoe, a St. Albert-based biologist with Ducks Unlimited. (Canada does not actually have a national bird.)
“Most people look up to the sky when they hear the honk and appreciate the birds,” he said.
Which goose is which? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Canada goose is known for its black neck and head and white chinstrap. It also tends to honk in flight.
There are actually about seven kinds of Canada goose, said Gary Erickson, assistant curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum, ranging in size from the three-kilogram “lesser” to the nine-kilo “giant.”
“The general rule is the bigger the goose, the farther south it lives,” Erickson said.
Most of Edmonton’s Canada geese are of the Moffit’s variety, which is the second biggest kind of Canada goose.
There used to be 11 varieties, Kehoe noted, but four of them were recently reclassified as a separate species: the cackling goose.
“The cackling geese are about the size of a mallard duck,” he said, have stubbier bills and may have a white collar.
On the wing Canada geese tend to migrate en-masse, Erickson said, flying overhead in a V-shaped formation.
The V-shape makes it easier for the birds to fly, he said, as the birds behind take advantage of the air kicked up by the ones in front.
“They’re drafting behind the other bird.”
Since the lead bird doesn’t get this help, it has the most demanding job. As a result, you’ll often see the geese taking turns in the lead.
Canada geese also have incredible stamina. Migrating as far south as Mexico, these birds can cover about 1,000 kilometres in as little as a day. This is due to their super-efficient lungs and muscles, Erickson said, both of which can take in more oxygen than humans can.
Most of Edmonton’s birds end up in California, Erickson said, although some will spend the winter in Calgary if there’s open water. Some will stay here as late as November.
“The cold doesn’t really bother them that much,” he said. “It’s the ice and snow that’ll boot them out of here.”
Get off my lawn! Some types of Canada geese, such as the giant, were nearly wiped out a century ago due to overharvesting and habitat destruction, Kehoe notes, but have bounced back due to conservation efforts.
Those efforts have been so successful that the geese are now considered a pest in some places. Camped out year-round by the thousands, these bad birds will gobble up golf greens, chase passers-by and defecate everywhere, messing up parks and contaminating lakes.
While some communities will just shoot the birds, others call in animal control experts like Edmonton’s Robert MacDonald.
You can get birds to leave a site by harassing them with remote-control cars and drilling holes in undeveloped eggs, he said.
“No geese are harmed,” he emphasized, and you must have a provincial permit to take these steps.
He’ll also try to grab female geese and relocate them to other lakes, where they usually find new homes and mates. This can be dangerous, as the geese can thrash predators with their powerful wings.
“We have to go out with a (plywood) shield when we deal with geese at the refineries because we will be attacked,” he said.
You might feel sad, as I do, when the last Canada goose takes off and wings its way south this fall. Keep your chin up: most of them nest in the same spot each year, so odds are you’ll see them again next spring.