Do Canada geese still fly south for winter? Yes, but it's complicated

North America’s growing suburbs are the perfect habitat for the bird, whose population is exploding.

Migrating Canada geese, in their iconic v-formations, can fly an astonishing 1,500 miles in just 24 hours. They can also waddle indefinitely around your local office park.

In recent years, more people across the United States and Canada have noticed the noisy black-and-white-headed birds taking up residence year-round on golf courses, lawns, and other green spaces. Have these geese, perhaps encouraged by milder winters and easy suburban living, simply stopped flying south? In many cases, yes—but the explanation is complicated.

In the classic migration pattern, flocks that wintered in the southern U.S. fly north in the spring, returning to the same spots in the high and sub-Arctic to breed and nest. In September and October, these flocks head south again—with a new generation in tow. With an average life span of 24 years, members of this species may make two dozen migrations in a lifetime, using the same “rest stops” along the way.

But there are exceptions. Even before Europeans settled the Americas in the 1600s, some members of this species—which was later named Canada goose (not “Canadian”) by Carl Linnaeus in 1758—never migrated.

These populations nested in a swath of habitat ranging from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, moving only far enough south each winter to find food and open water. When Europeans arrived, they discovered these so-called resident geese were easy pickings, and nearly wiped them out by the early 1900s.

A half-century later, conservationists and government agencies reintroduced captive-bred birds across their former northern U.S. range, and, boosted by a few surviving flocks, resident Canada geese made an astonishing comeback.

Today the nine-pound birds live in every Canadian province and state in the continental U.S.—and their populations continue to grow. In the 1950s, about a million called North America home; that number has since ballooned to seven million, according to estimates by the Canadian Wildlife Service. (The birds are also booming in Europe and New Zealand, where they are an invasive species.)

What’s more, in the late 1970s, only 10 percent of the geese that lived along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways—major migration routes cutting vertically across the U.S.—were residents. Today, they make up more than 60 percent. (Read about the epic journeys of migrating birds.)

“They were super successful, as we all know now,” says Paul Curtis, a population ecologist at Cornell University.

Not only do urban and suburban areas offer plenty of food and room to roam, resident geese are also safer from hunters and natural predators. Research shows the resident geese egg clutches are larger and their chicks live longer than those of migrating geese.

“We created ideal habitats for these birds,” he says.

Stay-at-home parents

Studying Canada goose migrations can be challenging; even bird biologists can’t tell migrant and resident geese apart by appearance; the populations also mix and interbreed.

Not only that, but birds from resident populations that haven’t migrated in generations, if ever, will suddenly fly the coop for the Arctic, where they feed and molt, the annual process in which all Canada geese lose and regrow their flight feathers.

Losing a nest can often spur geese to leave town, Curtis says: “What keeps those resident geese home in the summer is the goslings." (Learn why some birds, like Canada geese, fly in a v.)

In southern Michigan, more than half the resident geese tracked during a satellite-monitoring project migrated to Canada when their nests failed. Another study found that 44 percent of geese in New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont headed north when they had no young.

Sharp tracked one female goose who nested every year in front of the same Toronto office building until it lost its clutch of eggs. Then it flew to extreme northern Québec, on the fringes of the Arctic. “If it hadn’t lost its nest, it would have stayed in the plaza outside of shipping and receiving all summer,” he says.

While up north, this bird apparently fell in with a flock of migrators and headed to the Chesapeake Bay region for the winter, where she was shot by a hunter in Maryland.

The goose’s 2,600-mile odyssey is not unique—even among geese who come from generations of stay-at-home birds.

“These are birds that are hissing at you when you’re walking into an office building, and then they go to the Arctic or sub-Arctic to molt in as wild a place as a Canada goose can go,” says Christopher Sharp, a biologist and goose expert with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa.

Nuisance geese

In most cases, the surge in resident geese hasn’t stressed native wildlife and ecosystems. On the contrary, it’s our species that find coexistence a challenge.

Not only are Canada geese often aggressive, they litter their waste in human-made environments, such as playing fields, boat docks, and golf courses. A 50-goose flock can produce a staggering two-and-a-half tons of poop per year.

To deter the birds, people have tried noisemakers, training dogs to chase them off, and even the Goosinator, a bright-orange, remote-controlled decoy with a fearsome face that scares the birds.

But Curtis, who led a study on the effectiveness of hazing geese in New York State, learned that the birds knew every water body within 12 miles. “You’d chase them out of the park or off the golf course, and they’d be gone for a few days,” he says, “but they’d be back.”

In some places, notably airports, Canada geese pose a serious danger. In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese, forcing pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to land the plane on the Hudson River.

“Geese and jet aircraft just don’t mix,” Curtis says. Which is why, in this case, “the only effective way to manage them is to do a roundup and removal—and that gets to be controversial. Some people don’t like to see that happen.”

A little respect

Indeed, many animal lovers enjoy living among Canada geese; one much-documented pair nested at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Geographic Society in 2019.

Sharp believes geese deserve our admiration for the remarkable adaptability they’ve showed while thriving in habitats overtaken by humans.

He once found a radio-collared female caring for a hundred goslings (from many different clutches) nesting on an industrial office park roof. She didn’t leave the area to find a permanent water source for months, instead drinking out of a ditch and eating manicured grasses. “That’s a habitat where a bird with webbed feet doesn’t belong, and they were thriving,” Sharp says. (Explore National Geographic’s series on urban wildlife, Wild Cities.)

He also points out that entire annual life cycle of Canada geese happens within easy view of urban dwellers across North America.

“That’s an opportunity,” he says, “for a lot of people to make a real connection with nature.”

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