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Illinois hunting and fishing

The cackling goose (back right) is a separate species from the Canada goose (foreground). Look for the short, triangular bill and smaller size. Photo by Chris Young.

Pint-sized Canada goose is really separate species

February 01, 2013 at 07:26 AM

The State Journal-Register

An airliner taxiing at the airport certainly looks big until it rolls past a jumbo jet and suddenly appears miniature, almost toy-like in comparison.

The same can be said for birding, and distinguishing between two species of Canada goose.

Since 2004, Canada geese have been divided into two distinct species, a large-bodied species that breeds in the interior of North America and the smaller-bodied group that nests in the tundra.

The smaller bodied geese are called “cackling geese,” and are known by the scientific name, Branta hutchinsii.

Recently at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County, a handful of cackling geese mingled with the larger Canada geese,

Size is the first tipoff, but there are other clues.

“It’s got a little stubby bill and a certain type of cheek patch that goes up past the eye — but not too far past the eye. And it’s got the white-edgings on the back feathers,” said David Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology with the Illinois State Museum.

“They are just a little bit larger and more robust than a mallard, but with a little stubby bill,” he said.

Combining four of the smaller Canada goose sub-species into one species helped simplify identification, but regional variation between populations of

Canada geese still causes confusion, Bohlen said.

A sub-species of the Canada goose, known as the lesser Canada goose, can be somewhere in between, size-wise, but has a larger bill than the cackling goose.

Geese that live in Illinois all year long are known as giant Canada geese.
Giants were thought to be extinct, but a population was re-discovered in Rochester, Minn. in 1963 by Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

According to an archived U.S. Department of the Interior news release, the giant Canada geese weighed from 15 to 19 pounds.

The sub-species of geese that migrate from nesting grounds in Canada are known as interior Canada geese.

“The ones that come down from Canada are the ones that bring up the numbers, here,” he said. “In southern Illinois, that used to be the most common sub-species in the winter time. They are smaller than the giants but larger than cackling geese.”

On the move

Bohlen said some birds already are making their trip north.

“With this warm weather some of the birds are coming back, pintails especially,” he said. “I’ve seen some green winged teal and wigeon, and of course the snow geese are flying over and quite a few greater white-fronted geese, too.
It’s not too early for some snow geese to start arriving.

For those who wish the Canada geese would keep moving, Bohlen said that is unlikely.

“People don’t realize there is a resident goose population and (a population) that migrates down here,” he said.

Homeowners trying to scare off Canada geese end up driving off the migrants that were going to leave anyway.

“The resident geese put up with it and stay.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.


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