Vast flocks of grazing geese are a familiar sight on grassy pastures and lake shores, pecking at shoots on the ground, leaving closely cropped grasslands in their wake. Seen as a pest by many due to the excessive amounts of poop they deposit, geese play an important role in seed dispersal. But apart from grass, what else do geese eat? Keep reading, as we find out more about the dietary preferences of geese, both in the wild and in captivity.
Geese are almost exclusively vegetarian, and animal matter makes up only the tiniest portion of their diet. Grass, shoots, seeds, rushes, aquatic plants, weeds and roots are among their most widely eaten foods, and as well as grazing on land, geese spend time each day foraging on water.
Dabbling for underwater plant matter, allows geeze to access rhizomes from the silt which are particularly rich in starch, fiber, proteins and minerals.
On land, grass can meet all of the dietary requirements of both young goslings and older geese. In fall and winter, however, less grass will be consumed due to climate and location. During these seasons, more grains and seeds are eaten, as well as some berries and wild fruits.
To learn just what foods in a goose’s diet are healthiest and what foods they find irresistible, please read on!
A family of Egyptian Geese foraging for food
Geese spend much of their time grazing on waterside shores and grassy pastures, cropping grasses and clover close to the ground. In winter, agricultural fields offer a good source of energy with beans, corn and peas a particularly popular choice. As aquatic birds, geese spend much of their lives on or near water, and underwater plants, sedges, reeds, rushes and waterside vegetation is important in their diet.
Although not known for their diving and underwater swimming skills, geese do dabble upended and find food beneath the water’s surface, feeding on the roots and stems of rushes and reeds, eating rhizomes and pulling sedges and their seeds from the beds of lakes and reservoirs. Watercress, seaweed and kelp are among the most common aquatic plants in a goose’s diet.
In fall, grasslands may become depleted from overgrazing, and it’s at this time of year that many geese will switch their diet to include more seeds and grains. These are rich in carbohydrates and can offer the vital energy stores needed ahead of migration. Popular seeds and grains, foraged from the remains of agricultural harvests, include barley, wheat, corn, maize and oats.
Animal-based foods do not play a major role in the diet of geese, although occasionally insects and small fish may be eaten. When grazing on land, grasses will always be consumed in preference to any insects that may inhabit the pastures, although if some invertebrates are occasionally eaten, it would not be unheard of.
By far the most common element of the diet of geese in the wild is grass. Short, fresh grass is preferred, and new shoots of grass will be favored ahead of longer, taller strands. Clovers, bluegrass, orchard grass, timothy, and bromegrass are usually eaten in preference over tougher grasses such as alfalfa.
Canadian Geese foraging for food in the grass
Meadows, parks and grasslands are common features in both rural and urban settings, with lakes and reservoirs in city centers and residential areas often populated by large numbers of geese. Playing fields, recreation grounds and sports pitches offer large expanses of grass, which may catch the eye of passing geese, and before you know it, a flock may descend and rapidly work its way across the greenery, trimming the grass cover as they go.
It’s more unusual for geese to show up suddenly in a smaller backyard, although larger expanses of lawns in residential settings may also prove attractive, with weeds, grass cover, turf and clover all a tasty prospect for grazing geese.
Urban settings go hand in hand with risk factors that living in close proximity to humans may bring to upsetting the balance of the natural diet of geese. Feeding bread, chips, or leftover scraps to geese may quickly attract a larger flock, with geese known to be particularly fond of bread crumbs. Unfortunately, the benefits of bread are negligible, and the potential harms certainly outweigh any advantages. Geese are fed mainly on bread will quickly overlook more nutritious options, and risk becoming malnourished.
In the crucial developmental phases of a gosling, eating too much bread can have a major detrimental effect on their ability to fly. Eating too much bread at the expense of more valuable nutrient-rich food sources can lead to a debilitating condition known as angel wing. Angel wing is caused by a diet too rich in sugar and carbohydrates, especially breads, and can leave geese with wing deformities that leave them permanently flightless.
Reliance on humans can also lead to an inability to survive in the wild, putting geese at risk of predation, if they lose their natural vigilance around predators, and can face malnutrition if they are unable to forage for themselves without the support of humans.
Canadian Geese diving for food in the water
Grasses also form the most important element of the diet of domesticated geese, with recommended feeding proportions of 80 percent fresh and dried grass and 20 percent grains (oats, wheat, corn, barley). In summer, grass can represent up to 99 percent of the typical diet of a goose.
Commercial pellet feeds are available for geese, consisting of maize, barley, oats, and corn, and enriched with calcium, although it is recommended to always have access to grass for grazing or dried hay if this is not possible. Many breeders prefer to start goslings on a complete pellet-based diet for the first two months before gradually introducing grasses.
Supplementary feeding of fruits and vegetables to domesticated geese is beneficial, offering a wider variety of minerals and vitamins. Apples, bananas, watermelons and ripe grapes are among the favorite fruits and should be chopped into appropriate-sized pieces before being offered. Leafy vegetables, including lettuce greens and cabbage and cauliflower leaves in moderation, will also be readily eaten.
In the wild, geese regularly consume small pebbles or stones from the lake bed while foraging. These are then stored in their gizzard, where they work with digestive juices to grind any indigestible food particles into more manageable pieces. As geese are readily able to find and eat their own grit, it is not usually necessary to supply a separate source of grit, although a tray of coarse sand may help.
Calcium is a vital element in a goose’s diet, not only for supporting strong skeletons and bone health, but also during egg production to ensure that eggshells are not weak or prone to cracking. In the wild, geese will source calcium naturally, through their diet of fresh leafy greens. Domestic geese can be provided with calcium supplements, for example crushed oyster shells, particularly when breeding.
Geese feeding on grains out of a hand
Goslings have a relatively simple and straightforward diet, being raised initially on grasses and clover, on which they graze to feed themselves almost immediately. They are led to fertile grazing lands by their parents, who remain nearby as they master the art of tugging grassy shoots from the earth and identifying which types are the tastiest.
Young domesticated goslings will also usually be fed on supplementary chickweed and small grains including rice and barley. By around 5 or 6 weeks, grazing on grasslands will meet all of a gosling’s nutritional requirements.
Egyptian Goslings feeding on a grass pasture
Spring and summer are the most straightforward seasons in a goose’s diet. Grasses and sedge are in abundance, and the shortest sweetest new shoots are readily available, which is a particular benefit when goslings hatch and begin foraging alongside their parents. Clover, alfalfa and bluegrass are also eaten on land, and in water, geese dabble for seaweed, kelp and watercress.
Post-breeding, changes in weather and natural food availability leads to dietary adaptations, with high-energy seeds and berries becoming more important than grasses and sedge. Ahead of migration, geese begin to build energy reserves by eating foods that offer more carbohydrates, including seed heads, wheat, barley and maize.
By the time the harshest winter conditions hit, many geese will have temporarily located to milder wintering grounds, where they will continue to graze on unfrozen pastures if available, but are more likely to be found opportunistically foraging through agricultural land for any leftover crops, such as corn and beans.
In some regions, climate conditions may support geese all year round, and some access to grasslands may remain, although usually an increase in the intake of berries and seeds is noted until the following spring.
Feeding wild geese some supplementary food in winter is ok in moderation, although it is advised to allow them to forage for themselves and not become too dependent on humans for survival.
A flock of migratory Snow Geese feeding on agricultural land in the winter
Sometimes dubbed “environmentally friendly lawn mowers”, geese are well known for their fondness of grass. Large flocks gather on grasslands near to fresh water, and methodically strip grass cover until it is closely cropped to the ground. Geese grip onto clumps of grass with their bills, then tug it out of the ground. Turf grass, clover, seed heads and weeds are all eaten.
As well as grazing on land, geese spend a smaller, but significant portion of their time foraging on ponds, lakes and reservoirs for aquatic plants. By dabbling upended, they are able to find underwater sedges, reeds, rhizomes and other shoots to feed on. They occasionally eat small fish and aquatic invertebrates, although these do not form a major part of their diets.
Rather than foraging individually, it is far more common to see large flocks of geese grazing on land together, on grassy lands on the shores of lakes and reservoirs, as well as in fields and pastures. They feed by pecking for grass shoots on the ground, and in winter are likely to head further afield, to cultivated agricultural fields where they rely more heavily on leftover crops of beans and corn that have not been harvested.
A flock of Barnacle geese foraging
By grazing on grasslands and pastures, geese play an important and often overlooked role in their local ecosystems, dispersing seeds from their foraging grounds through their faeces, leading to increased plant diversity.
Goose poop is notoriously rich in nutrients, and despite being seen as a nuisance when large quantities are left on grazing land, it has beneficial properties as a fertilizer, containing concentrated phosphates.
Feeding bread to geese is not recommended, due to their tendency to fill up on what is a tasty and convenient equivalent of avian junk food. They will quickly learn to ignore any other more nutritious alternatives and fill up entirely on the empty carbs offered by bread, which can lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
For those wanting to feed wild geese at a local pond, safer and healthier options include sweetcorn or defrosted frozen peas. Wheat and grain mixes that are sold for poultry are also recommended.
Whilst it can be tempting to feed Geese bread, we advise against it, as it provides no nutritional value
Geese spend around half their day feeding on land and on water. Their diet is almost exclusively plant-based, consisting of grasses, clover, grains, beans and occasionally berries. Insects are sometimes eaten while grazing but they don’t represent a significant portion of their food intake. Winter food shortages and frozen grazing grounds often prompt geese to migrate south once breeding is complete.
Despite bread being a particular favorite of geese, it has little nutritional value. When offered bread, geese will eat it in preference of more beneficial, healthy foods, which can lead to malnutrition.
If too much bread is fed to young goslings while their skeletal structure is still developing, there is a serious risk of them developing a condition known as ‘angel wing’ which is caused by nutritional deficiencies and may leave a goose permanently unable to fly.
Many geese migrate south in winter as soon as grasses and other plants in their breeding grounds can no longer sustain their feeding requirements.
Frozen landscapes and poor weather can leave grasslands depleted, and most geese will relocate to more hospitable landscapes for grazing until the following spring. Farmers’ fields are also a top winter destination, where beans and corn offer high-energy food sources.
Avocados, onions, caffeine, chocolate and alcohol should not be fed to geese or other birds as they are potentially harmful. Foods with a high oxalic acid content should also be avoided, including rhubarb leaves, leaves and stems of amaranths and wood-sorrel. Mold and algae are also highly toxic to geese.
Close up of a Greylag goose foraging
Geese will spend half their day grazing on land and foraging for aquatic plants on ponds and lakes. They arrive on feeding grounds early in the morning and spend the days traveling between grasslands, grazing and resting, before heading to their night-time roosting sites at dusk.
Grass is the main food of geese, and they can make rapid work of stripping a pasture to stubble. A single large goose will eat up to 1 kg (2.2 lb) of grass each day, around one-fifth of its body weight. In captivity, around 200 g of prepared feed is provided, as well as unlimited grass.
Water is vital to the health of all geese, and drinking fresh water regularly helps them to stay hydrated. In the wild, geese drink water from lakes, rivers and ponds, and may also drink from puddles. In captivity, access to bowls of clean drinking water should always be available.
A pair of geese eating an apple
Geese are generally omnivorous but they don’t need meat of any sort to thrive. Whilst geese are very capable of consuming small invertebrates and even small fish, this is by no means the focus of their diet.
For all intents and purposes, geese can be considered herbivores and will happily graze on grass and other plant material whilst ignoring insects and other small animals.
Geese are borderline herbivores and most species will rarely consume meat or fish.
Some species like Canada geese are indeed considered herbivores. Geese are well-equipped for maintaining their hefty plant-based diets and will not likely need to resort to consuming fish and meat.
Apples are an excellent source of energy for geese and other birds. Rather than feeding geese large chunks of apples it’s best to cut them down into easily manageable chunks.
Most domestic and wild birds can eat grapes. Interestingly, Canada geese and many other birds are repulsed by a certain chemical used in non-toxic bird repellent called methyl anthranilate, which is used as a synthetic grape flavouring. Natural grapes are all good, though!
Geese are borderline vegetarian but will sometimes consume insects and perhaps even the infrequent small fish. They thrive on plant matter and do not need meat as part of their diet. Geese are amongst the most herbivorous of waterfowl and consume more plant matter on balance than either ducks or swans.
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