Nature Bulletin No. 731 November 9, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
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.
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.
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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Update: June 2012