By CRIN FREDRICKSON
For Jamestown Audubon
Duck, duck, GOOSE! The Canada Goose is a common sight in our neck of the woods; many of us can recognize their familiar calls or even their V-shaped flying formations as a sure sign that the seasons are changing. But there is more to this large waterfowl than meets the eye (or the ear). For example, did you know that the male and female have different calls? The male has a two-syllable call that is often described phonetically as “Ahonk”. The second syllable is higher than the first. The female, however, has a very distinct call. Hers’ is a single syllable that is higher and shorter than the males-“Hink”. The truly intriguing part is that the separate calls are often staggered into a perfect duet that is timed to sound like a single bird calling. In fact, if you were to hear only the female’s call you might never guess it came from a Canada Goose! The best way to hear the two sounds separately is when a pair flies overhead. As one bird passes you may be able to pick out the nasally male call or the high female response.
And that’s just the beginning! As it turns out, the Canada Goose has an amazing variety of visual displays too. A patient spectator can predict everything from confrontations to courtship just by reading a little body language. Even a passive observer is likely to have witnessed the head-flip (when the bird flips its head from side to side) or head-pump (when the bird rapidly raises and lowers its head in a vertical pumping motion). These movements are meaning-laden, both indicate that the bird has been disturbed and is about to move-the latter precedes a direct attack! Then there is neck-dipping. A pair repeatedly dip their entire necks into the water and toss water over their backs as they bring their heads up. The splashing signifies imminent copulation.
The geese at Audubon paired-off in early April and have goslings to look after now. So much for carefree splashing! So while you won’t see neck-dipping, you may witness a handful of other visual displays associated with defense. As soon as geese hatch they are capable of walking, the clumsy young follow their parents around as the whole family unit searches for food. This movement en masse often brings groups of geese into close contact; and, even though territory isn’t as fiercely guarded as during egg laying and incubation, it is still a matter of contention. If two families get too close the adults will head-pump and may even extend their necks parallel to the ground and toward the opponent, a display known as “head-forward”. The fascinating part? Unlike during other times of the year, these displays are done in absolute silence and are very rarely followed through with physical contact. The interactions often appear merely customary.
Want to learn more about Canada Goose behavior? A great resource is Stokes’ Nature Guides to Bird Behavior. There are three volumes but the first includes an extensive entry focusing on the wiles of Canada Geese. Of course after reading about their behaviors you’ll want to experience them for yourself and Audubon’s trails are the perfect place to do so! There are at least four families of Canada Geese that call the Sanctuary home including one pair that annually nests on the island across from the Nature Center. These geese may even bring their young, which hatched the first and second week in May, to the bird feeders-directly visible from inside the building. So whether you’re interested in a close encounter or just an out-the-window observation, Audubon’s Nature Center & Sanctuary is the place to start!
Please remember though, in order to observe these fascinating birds, you will most likely be invading their territory; respect their boundaries. Understanding their body language should keep you at a safe distance-for the birds AND for you! Geese are large birds and have been known to give nasty bruises as souvenirs to individuals who have ignored basic birding etiquette. You can find out more about the Canada Geese of Audubon and birding in general by visiting our Nature Center & Sanctuary.
Audubon trails are always open from dawn to dusk. Visit often and see our newest Canada Geese grow up! Please check our website for a list of special events coming up, jamestownaudubon.org or call (716) 569-2345. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.