A handful of times in the past couple of weeks I have encountered flocks of geese while approaching Fargo’s Hector Airport to land. Once we even took evasive action to avoid a potentially dangerous collision with these large waterfowl. Even observers on the ground are noticing an uptick in the birds’ activities. Encounters near the airport are not particularly unusual. However, the makeup of the flocks is noticeably different than what one encounters during summer months.
First, let’s just clear the air and address a pet peeve. Those “honkers” your father and grandfather referred to are properly called Canada geese (Branta canadensis), not — despite what you hear with cringe-inducing frequency in print and on the news — “Canadian geese.” Notice the difference? An individual bird or birds might have originated in the country to our immediate north and so could at that level be considered Canadian, but we wouldn’t necessarily know that. Instead, I implore you, dear reader (and copy editors everywhere), please call these magnificent fowl by their official common name, Canada geese. There, I feel better.
As to the current composition of the local goose flocks, some background is in order. Canada goose is a highly variable species consisting of up to 11 recognized subspecies, only a handful of which are truly distinguishable from another. We won’t address each of those but I will highlight the largest one — the giant Canada goose (B. canadensis maxima).
For about three decades in the middle of the 20th century, this huge subspecies was thought by many to be extinct. Remnant populations of this 20-pound bird were eventually located (most notably in Rochester, Minn.) and a captive breeding program began. From that small beginning, a large and burgeoning population was sprung.
As ubiquitous as these birds seem to us during recent summer months, it wasn’t very many decades ago when a picnic at the park or a round of golf was conducted goose-free. Not anymore. Maxima now number a few million and have become nuisances to farmers and others. Just ask Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, or rather his passengers, how they feel about a large and growing population of 20-pound flying cannon balls. Think about this: Every Canada goose you see during the summer nesting season is of the giant, or B. c. maxima, subspecies. All the other Canada goose races nest farther north into Canada and only show up here briefly during migration.
It’s these migrants I am addressing today. Astute observers are undoubtedly noticing something different in the air, a discernible change from the Vee formations of summer. Indeed, what we are seeing now is a mix of several subspecies of Canada geese with some quite obvious miniatures among them. Particularly intriguing to me are these “Mini-me’s.”
Despite the fact these tiny birds (barely 2 pounds) look like Canada geese with black heads and necks and white chin straps, biologists now believe they aren’t. In July, 2004, the governing body of all things birdy in the U.S., the American Ornithologists’ Union, declared the four smallest Canada goose subspecies genetically diverse to merit species status. Thus, the cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) was born.
Cackling geese differ from Canada geese in two discernible ways. First, and most obvious to most, is size.
A cackling goose is about one-quarter of a giant Canada. Seen in mixed flocks on water, cackling geese appear about as small as mallard ducks.
Observed closely, the neck of a cackling goose is much shorter than a Canada’s and its head is quite dinky. Also, that long robust black bill seen on Canada geese is greatly reduced in cacklers. You might say it appears as if cackling geese have a habit of running headlong into brick walls, so stubby are their bills.
Finally, its voice is a far cry from what we are used to hearing. Instead of the classical deep honking, cackling geese shout a high-pitched, squeaking cackle; thus its common name.
Instead of ignoring the overhead flocks, I encourage you to look up and see if you can find a couple of appreciably smaller birds flapping much faster than their nearby partners. Listen, also, for that distinguishable tenor voice. They aren’t our resident giant Canadas, they are cackling geese from the Arctic tundra.
Keith Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor