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.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
74cm to 91cm
147cm to 180cm
2.16kg to 4.75kg
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.
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