Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Canada Geese
Nature Bulletin No. 731   November 9, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

CANADA GEESE
There is a stirring sound that causes people to stop and scan the sky or hasten out of doors at night and watch for them: the honking of a flock of Canada geese. In autumn they are forebodes of winter; in March, harbingers of another spring. We wonder where they go and what will happen to them.

During those migrations between their ancestral nesting grounds in Canada and refuges where most of them winter nowadays, the "honkers" commonly fly in long V's -- sometimes in a long slanting line -- with a wise old bird, usually a gander, at the head. He honks and they respond at frequent intervals. From time to time he drops back and changes places with another experienced leader.

On October 10, at daybreak, we heard a distant clamor of honkers and presently spied a flock, sky high, traveling southwest toward the Illinois River valley. After sundown we saw another bunch. They were dribbling over in small flocks every day and approximately 10,000 had arrived at the Horseshoe Lake refuge near Cairo, another 10,000 at the Crab Orchard federal refuge east of Carbondale, and about 4,000 at the Union County refuge near Ware.

Vast flocks of Canada geese are migrating now and by mid-December more than 200,000 of them will be wintering on those refuges in southern Illinois. Another 100,000 will continue southward -- some as far as Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. In 1946, after years of being slaughtered, the total number of Canadas using this Mississippi Flyway had dwindled to about 40,000. The spectacular comeback has been due to thorough study by devoted scientists and precise management including calculated restrictions on the number killed each year by hunters.

These geese nest south of Hudson Bay and west of James Bay. They are one of four distinct flyway groups that breed around and inland from the coasts of those bays on a vast waterlogged plain called the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Almost impassable, it consists largely of quaking muskeg bogs, pothole lakes with floating masses of sedges and grasses, and scattered clumps of tamarack or spruce. One group migrates along the Atlantic coast; another uses the Southeastern Flyway; and the fourth, a western group, migrates across the eastern prairie states to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

For many years, Dr. Harold C. Hanson of the Illinois Natural History has followed geese from Illinois to their Canadian breeding grounds in spring and back to Illinois in autumn. He has observed that while the female lays and incubates the eggs -- usually five but sometimes more -- the male stands guard close by. After 26 days, during which she leaves the nest briefly each day to feed, the eggs are hatched and then the pair, with their brood, leave the nesting area and wander over the tundra from lake to lake.

"A pair with their young of the year are an inseparable troop, " Hanson says. 'In moving about, the female leads the way, followed by the young, with the gander bringing up the rear. When another goose family ventures too close battle formation' is assumed, the male acting as the head of a V-like phalanx. " Frequently there is a vicious battle royal between the ganders of two families.

For several weeks, at about the time the goslings are growing their flight feathers, the adults are also flightless while molting and regrowing theirs. "Once a-wing, many families fly to the shores of Hudson and James bays where they feed on berries and put on a layer of fat prior to their southward migration. .

More than any other waterfowl, Canada geese are distinguished for their wariness, sagacity and fidelity to their mates, families, and the customs of their flyway group.


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