One of the most incredible spectacles I have witnessed as a result of my photography is the migration of the Snow Geese. The sight and sound of thousands of Snow Geese returning to the marsh from the fields where they have spent the morning feeding is almost beyond description. It has to be seen to be understood. When something spooks a resting flock of thousands of Snow Geese and they all take to the air at once, the noise is something akin to a crowd roaring at a football stadium. If you are ever are given a chance to see this in person, don’t let the opportunity pass you by.
Returning home from the marsh filled with Snow Geese gives me a chance to do some reading about them. Here is some of what I have learned.
- The Snow Goose breeds north of the timberline in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern tip of Siberia. They fly as far south as Texas and Mexico during winter, and return to nest on the Arctic tundra each spring.
- Snow Geese don’t like to travel without the company of another couple dozen geese and can form flocks of several hundred thousand.
- The Snow Goose has two color plumage morphs, white (snow) or gray/blue (blue), thus the common description as “snow goose” and “blue goose.”
- The dark color of the blue morph Snow Goose is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partially dominant over white. If a pure dark goose mates with a white goose, the offspring will all be dark (possibly with white bellies). If two white geese mate, they have only white offspring. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark offspring, but might have a few white ones too.
- When choosing a mate, young Snow Geese will most often select a mate that resembles their parents’ coloring. If the birds were hatched into a mixed pair, they will mate with either color phase.
- Snow Geese stay with the same mate for life. Pair bonds are usually formed in the second year, although breeding doesn’t usually start until the third year.
- During the summer Snow Geese heads’ are often stained red as a result of gathering food in mud containing iron oxides.
- Females are strongly philopatric, meaning they will return to the place they hatched to breed.
- The female Snow Goose sometimes starts several scrapes before choosing the final location for her nest. She may lay the first egg within an hour of selecting the site.
- The creamy white eggs of Snow Geese stain easily. People can sometimes tell what order the eggs were laid in, just by the color of the shells (the dirtiest shells belong to the oldest eggs).
- The female incubates the eggs and nestlings, spending 21 or more hours per day on the nest, while the male stands guard to defend females and nest sites against predators and other Snow Geese.
- Snow Geese chicks are well developed when they hatch, with open eyes and down-covered bodies that already show whether the adult will have white or dark plumage. Within a few days they are able to maintain a constant body temperature on their own. They grow very quickly, with the males outpacing the females.
- The young Snow Geese feed themselves, but are protected by both parents. After 42 to 50 days they can fly, but they remain with their family until they are 2 to 3 years old.
- Snow Geese make epic journeys by air, but they are impressive on foot, too. Within the first three weeks of hatching, goslings may walk up to 50 miles with their parents from the nest to a more suitable brood-rearing area. Molting Snow Geese can outrun many predators.
- Major nest predators of the Snow Goose include Arctic foxes and skuas. The biggest threat occurs during the first weeks after the eggs are laid and then after hatching. The eggs and young chicks are vulnerable to these predators, but adults are generally safe. Additional predators at the nest have reportedly included wolves, coyotes and all three North American bear species. Few predators regularly prey on snow geese outside of the nesting season, but bald eagles (as well as possibly golden eagles) will readily attack wintering geese.
- Snow Goose hunting in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had recovered.
- The Snow Goose population in North America has increased to the point where the tundra breeding areas in the Arctic and the salt marsh wintering grounds are both becoming severely degraded, and this affects other species using the same habitat.
- The oldest Snow Goose on record, shot in Texas in 1999, was 27 and a half.
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