We love to watch their fluffy goslings in the summer as their parents lead them nipping at the grass. Their vigorous honking overhead and vast V-shaped formations herald the fall and the spring six months later.
But we curse them in our parks as we try to pick our way through minefields of slimy green goose droppings. Territorial and defensive geese, hissing as they protect nests, aren’t nearly as cute as the fluffy goslings. And land managers wish they didn’t have to rig networks of goose barriers to keep them from ripping out wetland vegetation.
Canada geese are large waterfowl, about three feet long and with a five-foot wingspan. They have a tan body and distinctive black neck and head with a white, triangular chinstrap. Goslings start out covered with yellowish-tan fluff and grow quickly. By about two months they have grown in adult feathers.
Canada geese pick nesting spots near water and with a good view to keep an eye out for predators. They range inland with their goslings on grazing trips. In cities, Canada geese take advantage of the mowed grass of parks, golf courses, and large lawns to feed where predators can’t sneak up on them.
Canada geese eat a wide variety of vegetation on land and in the water.
Although geese from Canada do migrate through Philadelphia in the spring and fall, our resident geese stay here all year. Late summer through the winter they fly from the waterways where they roost at night to places where they can find vegetation to eat, whether on land or in the water.
These are vocal birds, communicating with honks as they fly and sounding loud alarms when you or any other potential predator gets too close. As they feed on land, at least one goose will keep its head up to look for danger.
Pairs of Canada geese (they mate for life) build nests and raise broods along waterways and wetlands throughout Philadelphia. This is when they inspire the most affection from Philadelphians, leading their adorable goslings on grazing trips. Goslings are ready to fly after a couple months.
History with Humans
We did not always have Canada geese all through the year.
A few hundred years ago, before European colonization, Canada geese spent their summers in the north of our continent, raising their young in the marshes and waterways in what would become Canada. As winter set in and their watery homes froze up, they would fly south for the winter.
In the 1800s they would be greeted here with fusillades of shotgun fire. Hunters would shoot them for sport and subsistence, but they would also shoot them to sell in markets. Thanks to all this killing, Canada goose populations plunged across the continent.
Then, in the middle part of the 20th Century, game officials across the country started introducing Canada geese - in particular a large subspecies called the giant Canada goose - in the lower 48 in an effort to repopulate them and to give recreational hunters more birds to shoot at.
These introduced flocks stuck around all year. They didn’t migrate up north to breed. Year after year they had more babies, which also didn’t migrate. Geese that found their way to urban areas benefited from reduced hunting pressure and thrived. These populations grew and grew until they reached the high population densities we see today. Biologists and game officials refer to them as our “resident” Canada goose, to differentiate them from the migratory geese that have also bounced back over the last 100 years and pass through on spring and fall migrations.
Observing Canada Geese
Canada geese are easy to observe. It is hard to take a walk near water in Philadelphia and NOT see Canada geese. In the fall through the spring, though, listen for the distant honks of Canada geese flying high overhead, wherever you are in the city. When you look up you might be rewarded with the sight of their V-formations linked up into networks of hundreds of geese.
Living with Canada Geese
Canada geese can make it a challenge to keep your shoes clean as you walk in parks near the water. More significantly, their droppings can affect water quality, and they can devour wetland vegetation. Letting grass and vegetation grow tall along the water discourages the geese by blocking their lines of sight. New wetland plantings need to be protected by wood and wire frames to keep geese out. Park managers also employ a variety of lethal and non-lethal to control populations..
Read more about Canada geese on the PA Game Commission’s website.
Join a bird walk with BirdPhilly.
See Canada goose observations on iNaturalist.
Handsome waterfowl with darn cute fluffy babies? Noxious birds sliming your parks with green poop? Canada geese inspire strong feelings in urbanites. Learn more about them here. Thanks to our partners at Grid Magazine for producing the video and to the William Penn Foundation for their support.