Geese are prolific birds of the Anatidae family and are divided into two main genera; the white and grey geese of Anser and the black geese of Branta. Many species of goose are extremely cold-hardy and breed in the furthest reaches of the Arctic circle, so do geese migrate?
Nearly all species of geese are naturally migratory, but some populations are growing increasingly sedentary. Geese are powerful flyers and often make long migratory trips south from their Arctic, sub-Arctic and tundra breeding grounds. Winter numbers of geese in the UK, western and central Europe and in-land USA skyrocket in the winter.
There are some extraordinarily strong flyers amongst geese. For example, Bar-headed geese frequently cross the Himalayas during migration, flying at altitudes of over 27,000ft. There have even been anecdotal reports of them flying over Everest!
Over time, some populations of geese have become more sedentary and don’t migrate as far, if at all. Canada geese in the UK and USA are one such example - many no longer migrate.
Of course, there is much more to learn about geese migration, so read on!
Greylag geese can travel more than 1,000 miles (3,000km) each year
The majority of geese live in the Northern Hemisphere and migrate every autumn in winter, from around September until December. The precise date of migration varies with the cold. In a particularly cold autumn, geese might leave earlier than expected. If the winter is mild, geese might migrate as late as December or even January.
In North America, most migratory Canada geese migrate in September and October, with more northerly populations in Canada’s tundra regions leaving first.
Similarly, in much of Europe, Greylag, Barnacle, Pink-footed, White-fronted goose, and Brent geese typically migrate in autumn. Geese use environmental cues such as diminishing daylight and food supplies to trigger their migration.
Geese migrate due to the low availability of food in their breeding grounds. Once their food sources ice over and freeze, geese migrate to locate unfrozen water.
But why do birds choose to breed in such cold, inhospitable regions in the first place? The clue is in the world ‘inhospitable’ - these challenging environments aren’t frequented by many other animals and are relatively safe from predators and other competition.
This is why many birds have evolved to migrate - it allows them to raise their chicks in a safe environment during the spring and summer before flying somewhere warmer for winter.
A flock of snow geese migrating in a 'V' formation
Most geese are capable of long-distance flights of thousands of miles, but there are some seriously prolific migrators amongst them.
For example, some Brent geese migrate from northeast Canada to Ireland, a non-stop journey of over 3,400 miles (5,500km). Canada geese fly from the northernmost regions of Canada and the Arctic circle into the USA, a journey of some 1,500 miles (2,400km). If they find a strong tailwind, they can fly some 1,000 to 1,500 miles in just one day!
The Bar-headed goose migrates over 1,000 miles (1,600km) from Central Asia to Southeast Asia, a journey that takes them over the Himalayas.
Geese migrate as far south as they need to go. Most species of geese leave cold northerly regions and migrate to the temperate regions of Europe, North America and Central Asia.
Geese aren’t fussed about the cold - it’s food they’re looking for! While most geese breed towards the Arctic circle and neighbouring tundra regions, some, such as the Bar-headed goose, breed in Central Asia. The Bar-headed goose migrates to Southeast Asia, which probably takes it further south than any other species of goose.
A pair of Bar-headed geese on the water
Virtually all 17 species of geese are naturally migratory. However, as winter temperatures across the Arctic and tundra regions rise, geese migration is becoming shorter, and some populations choose not to migrate.
The Canada goose is a prime example of a sedentary goose. While most Canadian geese still migrate across Canada and the USA, there are now established breeding populations in many states. It’s a similar story in the UK, where Canadian geese have established large breeding populations. In fact, Canadian geese have taken up residence throughout much of the world - you can even find them in New Zealand and Australia!
Most truly wild populations of geese migrate, but the lines have become somewhat blurry in the last century. Geese have long been a domestic bird, and species have been introduced in regions where they do not occur naturally.
For example, the Canada goose was introduced as a gamebird to New Zealand in around 1905, and they’ve thrived ever since. Similarly, populations of Canada geese in the USA were ‘boosted’ for hunting and conservation purposes and many of these populations are non-migratory.
In the UK, Canada geese were introduced around 300 years ago and have formed large, sedentary populations. These birds don’t have the same migratory instincts as truly wild birds, hence why they don’t migrate.
There are pockets of other non-migratory geese around, and the migratory routes of Snow, Brent and Greylag geese, amongst others, are beginning to shorten as Arctic temperatures rise.
Many introduced Canada Geese populations are non migratory
Most geese migrate over the course of a week or so, but the bulk of the flight is usually non-stop.
For example, Canada geese can migrate over 1,000 miles in just one day, whereas Brent geese migrate over the Atlantic from Canada to Ireland - a journey that features no stopovers for around 3,000 miles!
Geese stopover sites are usually food-abundant and enable geese to get a good feed in before continuing their journey.
Geese learn to migrate from their parents. Each year, mature, juvenile and 1st-year geese will assemble in migratory groups and head south together.
Prior to migration, geese consume much more food than they would typically - their body weight increases by some 30 to 40% in some cases! Knowledge of migratory routes is passed down through generations of geese. This also explains why feral, escaped, or non-native populations of geese don’t migrate - because they didn’t learn how to migrate from their preceding generations.
A flock of migrating Canadian Geese
Most geese are gregarious and migrate in small-to-medium-sized flocks consisting of 10 to 30 birds or so. Migratory flocks are often formed of a few family groups, with parents flying alongside their young. Some geese migrate alone, but gather together in large flocks at their stopover sites.
Geese often migrate in a trademark ‘V’ or line formation. The head of the ‘V’ bears the brunt of the elements, and will swap places with birds towards the back when they get tired. This ‘V’ formation is also common in swans and other migratory waterfowl.
Geese typically migrate to temperate climates during the winter. Warmth is not the primary motivation for migration, though. Instead, geese migrate in quest of abundant food sources. This takes them to southern Canada, the USA and much of western and central Europe.
In Asia, central Asian populations of geese head to Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent in winter.
A large flock of Snow Geese in flight
Many geese do migrate at night. For example, Canada geese are often spotted very early in the morning, presumably at the end of their nighttime migrations.
Nighttime migration enables geese to pursue cooler winds and also helps them avoid diurnal predators. If necessary, geese will stop and rest during the day.
There are around six species of geese that migrate to and from the USA; the Brent goose, Snow goose, Canada goose, White-fronted goose, Ross's goose and the Cackling goose (which are separate from Anser and Branta).
The Snow goose, White-fronted goose and Canada goose are all prolific North American migrators, heading from the Arctic regions to the northern and interior USA.
Close up shot of a Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)
The UK hosts around six species of goose that head here from Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia and even Canada. These include the Greylag goose, Pink-footed goose, White-fronted goose, Bean goose, Barnacle goose and Canada goose.
Most North American geese breed in Canada and migrate to the US. A few populations of geese breed in the US, particularly in the northern states of Washington, Oregon, Michigan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Maine, and Vermont. These populations may migrate down rivers inland or along the coast on the West Coast.
A small flock of Barnacle Geese
The UK is home to many winter migratory arrivals, and few geese leave the UK in winter. This is because the UK has the perfect wintering climate for geese - it’s mild for most species of geese!
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