BC’s White Geese Of Winter

Snow geese

In every wildlife management region of the province, there are waterfowl seasons, including for several species of geese. There are combined open seasons for snow geese and Ross’s geese, although only hunters in region 2 are likely to find either species. But there, white geese numbers are booming.

Snow goose. Illustration by Cory Proulx.
Illustration by Cory Proulx.

The taxonomy of white geese in North America has a confusing history. The current genus name (Anser) was once Chen and still is in some texts. Ross’s geese (Anser rossi) look similar to, but are a separate species from, snow geese (Anser coerulescens), which in turn are most often split into two subspecies: greater (A.c atlanticus) and lesser (A.c.caerulescens). The blue goose, once thought to be a separate species, is now considered a colour phase mostly of lesser snow geese. Greater snow geese, as the name suggests, are slightly larger and found in eastern North America. The lesser snow geese and the smaller Ross’s geese are western birds that nest together and travel together and occasionally hybridize. The lesser snow goose populations of the central part of North America number many millions, while the Pacific coast populations number about half a million birds. At least 100,000 now winter in BC, the others head further south to winter from Washington to California.

Lesser snow geese stand about 60 centimetres tall and weigh two-and-a-half to three kilograms. They are all white with black wing tips and pink legs. Snow geese bills are pink with a serrated edge (called a tomia), which gives the appearance of a smile. The blue colour phase is rare in BC, but the colour can range from that of faded, dusty blue jeans to the bright blue of jeans still on the store shelf.

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BC’s snow geese migrate along the west coast of North America to nest in the Arctic on Russia’s Wrangel Island, arriving there in early June. The nest is a shallow depression in the gravel or moss and lined with down. Nesting colonies may include tens of thousands of nests at densities of 2,000 per square kilometre. A clutch can be one to eight eggs, but there are normally four. Incubation, solely by the female, takes about three weeks and, during this time, she basically doesn’t eat and may lose a third of her body weight. The goslings are ready to leave the nest almost immediately after hatching and begin serious feeding. They grow quickly on a diet of Arctic insects (which are seldom in short supply), but after a couple of weeks they switch to the primarily vegetarian diet of the adults. Snow geese eat a wide variety of plant material, from seeds and leaves to stems and roots. They grip a plant with the serrations on the side of their bill and cut it to pieces with their tough, saw-like tongue. By late August, the goslings are strong enough for the flight south for the winter. In the migrating flocks, families stick together. The youngsters may stay with their parents for two years, so a family unit may include three generations. The average age of a snow goose is six years, but some live twice that long. These are not solitary birds; they like to gather in flocks varying from dozens to hundreds.

This life strategy is so successful that lesser snow geese are overwhelming their nesting habitat and seriously damaging the slow-growing Arctic vegetation. This was not always the case. In the early 20th century, market hunting had drastically reduced the numbers of these geese and a series of refuges were created along migration routes to provide protection and suitable habitat. BC’s Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island preserves important habitat for migrating waterfowl. In the 1970s, lesser snow geese began a dramatic increase in numbers, mostly attributed to a switch in feeding strategy to include farmland. Here, they found an abundance of high-quality food, which increased the health of the adults, and fat, healthy geese produce larger and healthier families so a population boom began. Climate change is also a factor. The increasingly early arrival of the Arctic spring and the accompanying mild temperatures has boosted goose breeding success.

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As the numbers of lesser snow geese that winter on the Fraser delta has increased, the birds have spilled over onto the nearby farmland and hunters can now find them in marshes and soggy farm fields as far inland as Cloverdale.