The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Greylag geese are large, heavy birds from the grey goose Anser genus. They measure 74 to 91cm (29 to 36in) long with a wingspan of 147 to 180cm (58 to 71in). Greylags weigh between 2.16 to 4.75kg, with some exceptional males reaching 5kg.
Adults are predominantly grey-brown, with a dark head and paler stomach. The stomach and breast feature variable black spots or blotches. Greylags have a white line that divides their upper and lower bodies, with darker upperwings edged in white. They have a white undertail and thick, pink legs with large pinkish feet. The bill is orange, with a yellowish tip.
Greylag Goose in flight
Female Greylag geese look the same as males, but are smaller on average. Their plumage may be slightly duller overall.
Juveniles have less defined plumage, with much duller colouration overall. Their plumage is more mottled and less refined or contrasting. Young juveniles may retain patches of fluffy down until they moult into their adult plumage.
Greylag geese are the largest, bulkiest members of the Anser genus. On average, they measure around 74 to 91cm (29 to 36in) long with a wingspan of 147 to 180cm (58 to 71in) and weigh between 2.16 to 4.75kg, with some of the largest males reaching 5kg.
Females are around 15% lighter than males on average. These are heavy, rotund birds that are well-adapted to cold weather climates.
Close up of a juvenile Greylag Goose
Like many geese, Greylags are loud but tend to be even more nasal than other geese. They have around nine types of honk-like sounds and cackles, ranging from softer calls in family groups to loud, high-pitched alarm calls and gregarious honks.
The female is also capable of an aggressive hiss that she uses when defending her nest or chicks. One of the main syllables is a honk-like gur or gruhh, which the geese repeat in descending or ascending patterns.
Large flocks of wintering Greylag geese are usually host to a wide range of loud honking and trumpeting calls. These are social birds that communicate avidly during migration and wintering. They also have a distinctive “triumph call” that the male and female vocalise when successfully warding off a predator or other intruder during the breeding season.
Greylag Goose calling and showing off its wings
Greylag geese are primarily vegetarian. They eat seeds, stems, roots, leaves, buds and fruits from various plants. Their diets are flexible and depend on what’s available seasonally and in their habitat.
In winter, they enrich their diets with grains and vegetables when available. Greylags also feed in fields where they eat excess grain and cereals.
These large birds graze on large fields alongside other birds and livestock such as cows and sheep. They’re quite content consuming mainly grasses, leaves, stems and roots, but do sometimes eat insects, molluscs and small fish.
Greylag geese feed throughout the morning and afternoon, and tend to up their protein-rich food intake during summer in preparation for migration.
Baby greylag geese feed themselves after just a few days. The young chicks are born precocial, meaning they’ve obtained an advanced state of growth and are already covered in a feathery down. They’re led by their parents, who indicate what they can and can’t eat by pecking at it.
A pair of Greylag Geese feeding on grass
Greylag geese prefer semi-aquatic habitats, including floodplains, marshes, estuaries and the calmer lower courses of rivers. However, semi-tame Greylags also live in urban and suburban parklands.
Greylags prefer isolated freshwater habitats in the wild but often stay near agricultural crops to feed. They occasionally live near coastlines, but usually remain more than 1km from the coast itself.
Greylag geese are distributed in the Palearctic and are most numerous in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Romania.
They also breed across Western and Central Europe; the UK, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and the Czech Republic. In addition, small populations of Greylag geese breed in Turkey, but breed less commonly in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
In Asia, Greylags breed across most of northern Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
During migration, European Greylag geese often head to Southern Europe and North Africa, whereas Asian populations head to China, India and South Asia.
A greylag goose taking off from the water
Greylag geese are native to the Palearctic, covering all of Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, and Africa north of the Sahara desert. During migration, some Asia populations of Greylag geese migrate beyond the Himalayas to India and South Asia.
It’s possible to see Greylag geese practically anywhere in the UK, but they’re most common north of the Solway. Mersehead (Dumfries & Galloway), Vane Farm (Fife) and Loch of Strathbeg (Grampian) are three popular spots for observing truly wild Greylags.
They can also be seen in urban and suburban parks, most famously St. James's Park in London.
Close up of a Greylag goose
In the wild, greylag geese live for around 8 to 14 years on average. However, in captivity, some have been recorded living into their 30s. The oldest wild Greylag geese lived for over 20-years.
Greylag geese are large birds with few natural predators across most of their European range. However, they face threats from foxes, mink and polecats. The White-tailed eagle and Golden eagle occasionally target young and juvenile birds.
As of 2021, in the UK, Greylag geese are listed as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds. This is because resident Greylag geese numbers have declined in recent years.
They are also protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
Greylag geese are a successful and abundant species whose numbers are generally trending upwards. As a result, there are more Greylag geese in many parts of Western and Northern Europe than there were in the 1980s and 1990s.
Close up portrait of a Greylag goose
Greylag geese often nest on the ground, amongst reedbeds and aquatic vegetation, but they’ve also been recorded nesting up large trees. Nests on rocky escarpments and cliff sides are also fairly common.
Greylag goose eggs are large, measuring approximately 86 x 58mm and weighing 160g. They’re creamy-white in colour.
Greylag geese typically form strong, monogamous bonds that last for life. Both parents aid with incubating and rearing the chicks. Young geese can stay with their parents for most of the year, completing at least one migration with them before becoming truly independent.
Nesting Greylag goose sat on the nest
Greylag geese are aggressive and territorial in the breeding season, when they’re on high alert to protect their partners, nests, eggs and chicks. This is the norm amongst birds, but since Greylags are quite large, they can be imposing when exhibiting aggressive behaviour.
Greylag geese are largely migratory, but are becoming more sedentary across most of Central Europe. Populations as far north as Iceland, Scandinavia and Siberia nearly always migrate, with western populations heading through Western and Central Europe to Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Western France. Sedentary and semi-tame resident populations are found throughout much of Europe.
Some continue through the Mediterranean and North Africa. In addition, small numbers of wintering geese are found in the Middle East and Africa as far south as Egypt.
In Asia, migratory Greylags head to India, China, Mongolia and the Middle East. There are also records from Southeast Asia; Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as Japan and Taiwan.
Migrations take place primarily in October and November. The geese may remain north on a mild winter or head south on a particularly cold winter.
A large flock of Greylag geese in the winter
Greylag geese are reportedly named so because they’re grey geese from the Anser genus that migrate after many other geese, hence “lagging” behind. Some Greylag geese don’t migrate until December.
There are occasional records of wild Greylag geese in the USA, but these are presumed escapees and/or vagrants from Europe (probably Iceland). Domestic or semi-domestic Greylag geese are common in the USA, New Zealand and Australia.
Domesticated Greylag geese can be any colour ranging from true wild Greylag plumage to completely white. So, in a sense, Greylag geese can be white, but not in their wild form.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
74cm to 91cm
147cm to 180cm
2.16kg to 4.75kg
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
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Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
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Tundra Bean Goose
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The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
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Taiga Bean Goose
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A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
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Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
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A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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