Nature Nearby: A honk and a hink for the season

November 9, 2015

Geese in their natural habitat. Credit: Fred Seitz
BY FRED SEITZ —

BY FRED SEITZ —

Whether you are walking along the Northwest Branch Trail ,especially near the Port of Bladensburg, or sitting quietly at home, it is hard not to notice the call of our largest waterfowl, the Canada goose. The large wild goose species flies overhead  in V-formation this time of year. Some of our local geese may be migrants, but many will overwinter in the area and may be simply moving to their evening roost. (There are flocks at nearby Lake Artemesia most of the year.)  

They are the most popular game bird because of their large size, and at the beginning of the 20th century, their numbers were seriously reduced by extensive hunting. During that period, hunting regulations required the purchase of bird hunting stamps, which raise funds for wetland protection. Their protection in some areas has helped to restore their numbers.

 There are an estimated 4 million Canada geese in the United States. Some people perceive them as pests due to the abundance of their waste (which can carry disease) and because some occasional airplane strikes have resulted in plane crashes.

Male geese weigh between six and 14 pounds and make the two-syllable call “a-honk.” The females weigh between three and six pounds and make the single syllable call “hink.” A mated pair will often make their sounds close together, so it may be difficult to distinguish the two when they are chatting together. Their different calls make it easy  to differentiate male from female, especially useful because their appearance is identical.

The birds are well known for their aggressive behavior, at which times “intruders” may notice the geese pointing their heads towards them while making  an unpleasant hissing That is to say nothing of the occasional “charge” and bill butting by the annoyed goose.

Even when the geese are feeding, at least one member of the flock will have its head up to keep watch of the flock. Geese will often charge towards someone who comes too close and become quite verbal when approached by humans or other wildlife. Sometimes these “approaches” occur when the male is establishing his territory during courtship or when the goslings are small. Fox, coyote, hawks and raccoons often prey upon Goslings. Adult geese have little to fear in this area, but in the Midwest, they are occasionally hunted by wolves.

The courtship of the geese usually begins in early winter and is characterized by head bobbing and movement. Once a pair is established, the two will usually stay together for life. The female will typically begin to search and select a nesting site, often on a small hill or raised area near a lake, stream or pond.  The male will “protect” the chosen site. Nest-building often begins in March and breeding shortly after that. The female lays four or five eggs and incubates them for approximately a month. When the goslings hatch, they are guarded by both parents, but start following the parents to learn how to eat and swim. Both children and adults usually eat grass, worms, insects and the occasional small fish.