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Photo:  Western Canada Geese Western Canada geese migrate to the Mid-Columbia Basin in fall and winter.

Graphic: What About Canada Geese?

Graphic: Background Information...

Canada geese belong to a family of birds called waterfowl that also includes ducks and swans. There are many kinds of Canada geese - 11 different races in North America. The birds that primarily migrate to our region in the Pacific Flyway are called western Canada geese. A scattering of one smaller race referred to as the "lesser" Canada goose also is found here seasonally. In fall and winter, the intermountain western Canada goose population migrates from central British Columbia and Alberta to the Mid-Columbia and other basins as far south as California and Arizona. In spring, most birds return to northern lands to nest and raise their broods before heading south again to warmer climates. Some geese remain in the Columbia Basin throughout the year, but most merely rest before continuing their journey. Biologists estimate that, at times, at least 20,000 geese winter in the Columbia Basin.

What do Canada geese look like?
No one can miss the clear honking call of Canada geese flying in v-shaped formation or the sight of their streamlined bodies: black-stockinged heads, white-banded throats and cheeks. Webbed feed help them swim and dive. All races of Canada geese have black bills, legs, and feet; gray-brown to dark-brown back and wings; and a white rump and belly. They have strong necks and wings. Goose feathers are layered and shed water to keep the birds dry and trap warm air next to their bodies. Male western Canada geese weigh about 10 pounds, females about 8 pounds.

How do Canada geese live?
Western Canada geese live in marshy areas, ponds, and streams and nest on riverbanks and islands. They breed in spring in nests made of twigs, grasses, and weeds. Nests are lined with down, plucked from the female's breast, which provides excellent insulation for the incubating eggs. After hatching, the young geese live with their parents for about 1 year, then look for a mate. Canada geese keep the same mate for life. In the Columbia Basin, Canada geese nest on islands in the Snake and Columbia rivers. Since 1953 scientists have counted nests on 20 Columbia River islands. On the average, 200 nests are found each year.

At sunrise and sunset geese scatter from wetland areas to feed. In the Mid-Columbia you'll often see them in corn or wheat fields eating new shoots and grain left over from harvest. Geese also eat the leaves or roots of water plants, grasses, and insects. When they're not eating, geese rest and preen on island shorelines or float in groups on open water.

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How do Canada geese migrate?
How geese find their way thousands of miles between summer and winter homes is still a mystery. Although scientists know when and where geese migrate, no one is sure just how they find their way. Some think Canada geese navigate by memory and topography, the shape of a mountain, contour of a river or stream, or that they carry inside some kind of compass linked to Earth's magnetic field. Others believe migrating geese use positions of the sun and stars to aid navigation.

Scientists do know that geese fly at altitudes between 1000 and 3000 feet and that they can fly over 12,000-foot mountain peaks. They fly day or night in all kind of weather at speeds of up to 40 to 45 miles per hour. Some Canada geese fly in flocks of up to 1000 birds, but western Canada geese usually stick to small family-sized flocks. Although watching Canada geese fly in the characteristic "v" is a pretty sight, there's much more to the formation than beauty. Flying in a "v" reduces air resistance, allowing geese to fly farther in formation than they could individually.

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Take a trip to the McNary National Wildlife Refuge, Burbank Slough Wildlife Trail.
To get to the refuge from the Tri-Cities, take U.S. Highway 12 toward Walla Walla. After you cross the Snake River, turn left at the second road after the bridge (Maple Street). About one-half mile east of U.S. 12 turn left onto South Lake Road, and park in the designated area on the right side of the road. Walk across the road to the trailhead, where refuge bird lists are available. Follow the 1-mile loop trail through tall cattails and reeds surrounding a pond. Keep your ears and eyes open for Canada geese. Keep walking through a thick stand of Russian olive trees and over a narrow footbridge to an opening where you can scan the pond for geese, great blue herons, American coots, and many other species, depending on the time of year you go. Follow the trail through a stand of sagebrush back to South Lake Road. Other good places to watch migrating Canada geese are along the Columbia River shoreline and at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Othello.

Learn bird topography.
While at the refuge, practice identifying birds. Here are some questions you might ask while bird watching:

How big is the bird? Is it large, medium, or small? Compare its size with that of other birds you know, say a robin, pigeon, or sparrow. Does it fly, swim, or wade? Dip its head beneath the water to feed like a western grebe? Soar like a red-winged hawk or perch in the trees?

What shape is the bird? Does it have long legs like a great blue heron or a long wedge-tipped tail like a magpie? Does it have a short bill or big pouch like a white pelican?

What color is the bird? Does it have a bright yellow breast crossed with black v like a western meadowlark, or is it a dull born with small black horns like a horned lark? Does it have a colored patch on its wing like a red-winged blackbird, or is it a solid color, like an American crow?

What does it sound like? Does it coo like a mourning dove or hoot like a great horned owl?

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Birds of the Tri-Cities and Vicinity, 1991. Howard R. Ennor, Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, Richland, Washington.
  2. Ducks, Geese, & Swans of North America, 1982. Frank C. Bellrose, Wildlife Management Institute, Washington, D.C.
  3. The Canada Goose, 1990. Kit Howard Breen, Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minnesota.
  4. Waterfowl Tomorrow, 1964. Joseph P. Linduska, U.S. Department of the Interior, GPO, Washington, D.C.
  5. Wild Goose Country, 1992. Michael Furtman, North Word Press, Minocqua, Wisconsin.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Bird Web: Birds of Washington State -
  2. Canada Geese Kidzone -
  3. Canada Wildlife Service -
  4. Canadian Museum of Nature -
  5. Ducks Unlimited Canada -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

This fact sheet was developed by the Arid Lands Field Institute, managed by the University Center for Professional Education, Washington State University Tri-Cities. Production was made possible by a grant from Battelle Memorial Institute. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design; First printing, September 1997. Web Development: WinSome Design.

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