CANADA GOOSE


The Canada goose (Branta Canadensis) is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and popular game birds in the state of Wisconsin. Primarily due to preservation of breeding areas in Canada and wetlands in Wisconsin, large Canada goose populations pass through Wisconsin. There are localized breeding populations in some areas of the state, while other areas hold extensive migratory populations. The entire Mississippi Valley goose population is estimated to exceed 600,000, during the winter months. A substantial sub-flock of approximately 350,000 passes through east central Wisconsin (Horicon, Grand River Marsh and Pine Island wildlife areas. Several thousand geese, belonging to the Eastern Prairie population, pass through the western part of the state, as do two smaller flocks of giant Canada geese. Each of these populations breed and winter in different areas, and there is also a resident flock of about 2000 that are year-round residents of Green Bay. "Canadas" were common in the early days of Wisconsin, when large populations of both breeding and migratory geese inhabited the state's marshes and prairie wetlands. However, the states breeding population was virtually eliminated by 1900 due to year-round market hunting, stealing of eggs, and destruction of habitat. Market hunters alone killed thousands of geese each year to sell in stores and restaurants. Legal interstate sale of game ended in 1900, and Canada geese populations began to recover, actually being aided by the expansion of agriculture. Drainage of Wisconsin's wetlands, in recent decades, has had a negative impact, but efforts to preserve these valuable lands and the breeding grounds in Canada have been successful and breeding populations are beginning to move farther north. Localized hunting is a great potential problem for Wisconsin's resident Canada geese. Geese tend to congregate in small areas and, when hunters take advantage of these concentrations, overharvest can be the result. Also, in overcrowded areas, there is a much greater potential for disease and lowered production within the population. Wisconsin's resident goose populations can only be increased by careful management of these high congregation areas.

The Canada goose is a migratory species, which passes through Wisconsin each spring and fall in distinctive V-shaped flocks, complete with the ever so familiar loud honking. These geese are relatively large birds, averaging 6-10 pounds in weight and about 29-38 inches in length. Size can fluctuate greatly among the eight races of geese, which live in various parts of North America and differ in both appearance and size. Some geese are barely larger than mallard ducks, at 3-4 pounds, while others are over four times that size. Here in Wisconsin, most migratory geese belong to the "interior" race (Branta Canadensis interior), but the giant Canada goose (Branta Canadensis maxima) also nests in the state and is the largest of the races, sometimes reaching 18 pounds. Canadas are easily recognized by their plumage. The body feathers are grayish-brown and the underside is white from the neck to the tail. The head, long neck, bill, legs and webbed feet are all colored black and a large white patch crosses the cheeks and under the chin. Males and females are similar in both size and plumage. Goose tracks are four-toed and the webbing and claws can often be seen. Like a duck, a goose tends to walk with its feet pointing in, but the goose's tracks are larger, measuring about four inches long.

Most Canada geese mate for life and breed when they are two years old. Young geese, mating for the first time, perform their courtship rituals and "pair bond", or select their mates, before the spring migration in late winter or early spring. Separation or death of a mate will cause formation of a new pair bond, normally during the next breeding season. Male geese often fight over a female during courtship, using their wings and bills as weapons. The winning male then approaches the female with his head lowered, waving his neck from side to side. After only a short period of time, the pair bond is formed and the geese mate. The pair then selects a nesting site, and the male defends this territory around the nest against all intruders. With the male performing guard duty, the female builds her nest, only days before she lays her first egg. Geese generally nest on slightly raised, dryer ground areas near water, where visibility is good in all directions. Common nesting areas include sites near shores, on muskrat or beaver houses, on small islands, and in marshes and fields. The female scrapes out a fairly large depression in the ground and lines it with vegetation found near the nest. She then adds a layer of her own down, and she will cover the eggs with this down when she leaves the nest to feed. The female normally lays 4-8 whitish eggs, one egg per day, starting in late March or early April. She starts to incubate the eggs only after the last egg is laid, and incubation takes a total of about 28 days. The young geese, or goslings, weigh 5-6 ounces and are covered with bright yellow down when hatched. Before anything else, the goslings oil their feathers, using oil from a gland on the back and spreading it with their bills to the body feathers. For the first day, they usually stay in the nest, but on the second day the female is prone to lead them out of the nest. For the first few days out of the nest, the young geese stay on land, hiding in vegetation to escape danger. The parents then move the brood to rearing areas near open water. They swim as a family unit, with one adult leading a single file line of goslings, and the remaining adult bringing up the rear. After 12 days, goslings begin losing their down, and by 56 days they have attained full plumage. The young fly after 7-9 weeks, but during the time when the goslings are growing, the parents undergo a complete molt of flight feathers and are unable to fly until the time that the young begin flying. The basic social unit of the Canada geese is the family and family bonds are typically quite close. The adults and their young remain together through migration and usually on the wintering grounds as well. Some young remain with their parents until breeding occurs again and they are driven off.

Canada geese feed on a variety of foods in different habitats during different seasons. Vegetable matter is the food of choice with favorite foods including wild rice, shoots of grasses and sedges, berries, aquatic plants and seeds and cultivated grains. Geese are capable of doing considerable damage to agricultural crops, such as wheat, corn, alfalfa and oats, by ripping off new shoots and often pulling up the entire kernel. During their fall migration, geese will return to the grain fields to feed on unharvested and waste grain, mostly corn. Geese will also eat non-vegetable foods, including insects, crustaceans and small mollusks, which they particularly enjoy when attached to food plants.

Canada geese habitat is very diverse, as they migrate each spring and fall. Geese winter mostly in agricultural fields near open shallow water in refuges, bays, estuaries and salt-water marshes. Most of the migratory geese, which pass through Wisconsin, winter in southern Illinois, northwestern Kentucky, and other areas of the southern Mississippi River region. Approximately 5,000 Canada geese are believed to breed in Wisconsin, but the breeding territories are mainly in Canada along the western shore of James Bay and the southern edge of Hudson Bay. These breeding grounds include large, open areas located near water. In Wisconsin, Canada geese are generally seen during the spring and fall in lakes, rivers, grain fields, and large marshes and grassy fields. They are especially attracted to sanctuaries and wildlife refuges that have been set up specifically for rest and feeding during migration. Geese have even changed their migration routes to facilitate stops at these refuges. Different goose populations follow narrow corridors each year to migrate back to the same areas. A good example of this is the Mississippi Valley flock that uses Horicon Marsh and other southwestern Wisconsin refuges. Canada geese are easily recognized in flight by their loud-calling, V-shaped flocks, where families travel together, normally flying at a level of a few hundred feet, or even lower in bad weather. Geese change positions within the "V", so that different birds lead the flock, and this "V" pattern breaks up the wind resistance, allowing the geese to conserve energy. Normal daily routine consists of flying out in flocks to feed in the early morning or late afternoon. Typically midday is spent at a roosting site, bathing, preening, and sometimes sleeping while standing on one foot. If approached by an intruder, geese usually make a loud hissing sound and will posture, bending the neck and extending it forward to attack. They attempt to hide from predators by sometimes lying motionless in the grass with neck extended.

Hunting is the main source of mortality in Canada geese. Goslings and eggs are also taken by coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, crows and gulls, but most losses of eggs and young result from flooding, chilling and other weather-related factors. Adult geese are occasionally killed by bald eagles and great horned owls. Geese can also be affected by diseases and parasites like avian tuberculosis, salmonella, botulism, and lead poisoning from eating lead shot left by hunter's guns. Leucocytozoan, a blood parasite, is transmitted mostly to goslings from black flies, and geese are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease when they gather in large flocks.

Most of Wisconsin's Canada geese assemble in the area of the Horicon National Wildlife refuge. This heavy concentration has resulted in heavy damage to agricultural crops, greater potential for high disease losses, and traffic congestion from sightseers. Wildlife managers tried feeding programs to help reduce crop loss, but this proved unsuccessful. Between 1976 and 1980, attempts were made to redistribute Horicon's goose population to other areas of the state. Lengthening hunting seasons, manipulating waterways and scattering the flocks with "scare flags", airboats, helicopters, and propane exploders were all tried with some success.

Traditionally, most geese have been shot by waterfowl hunters whose primary targets were ducks, and it remains true today that geese and ducks can be taken by the same methods. There aren't many duck hunters that would pass up a shot at a honker, and many duck hunters take goose hunting permits with them on all hunts. But with the increasing goose population, and sometimes ebbing duck numbers, more and more hunters are heading for the fields, marshes and waterways with geese as their primary targets. Similar methods do work for taking both geese and ducks, but the hunter who adds some special twists to his old-standby waterfowling methods will have better odds of success. Some goose hunting is done over water, but most is done in fields where geese come to feed on leftover grain crops such as corn, soybeans, rice and wheat

There are three basic types of "field hunting" for geese:

1. Fixed or semi-permanent blinds located prior to the season
2. Locating favorite feeding fields each day and setting decoys
3. Sneaking up on feeding geese
Permanent blinds are usually located before the season starts in feeding fields adjacent to areas that have traditionally held geese, such as refuges. Geese are creatures of habit and will come back to the same areas year after year. Hunting will probably be very good in these areas season after season unless drastic habitat changes occur. There are commercial goose hunting operations that offer leases for a day, week or month. Some offer quality hunting situations, but some are shoddy operations that are in it only for the money and will run hunters through a hot blind in shifts. Many field hunts on public lands are not much better. Geese may be highly concentrated, but so normally are the hunters, and flocks soon learn to fly well above shotgun range or completely avoid blinds. This tends to lead to "skybusting" and needless crippling. If you luck out and both geese and other hunters cooperate, hunting may be good, but often times the hunt will be dismal. Still, with the right situation and set-up, hunting decoying geese in a prime feed field can be one of the most exciting and challenging forms of waterfowling. Proper blind location, lots of quality decoys, and most importantly, good calling techniques is what it takes for fifty big old honkers to settle in on your decoy spread while you sit in your pit blind ten yards away. You can often rent or lease land around public hunting areas or refuges, but the choice adjacent lands can be very expensive. You might want to try to lease land some distance from the refuge, as geese will gradually eat up the food from the closest parcels, and with the addition of hunting pressure, will fly further and further from the refuge to find food. Locating feeding fields of these flocks, and then asking permission of the landowner, may be all that is necessary for a quality goose hunt. Many landowners will welcome the help to cut down on goose population, as geese can quickly destroy a crop, and the hunting may be free of charge. The most successful technique to locate feeding fields is to watch the early morning flights with binoculars and follow with your vehicle until the flock settles down to feed. They may travel 20-30 miles from the refuge and return mid-morning or feed all day and fly back in late afternoon, depending on weather conditions, food supply, and distance from the refuge. When you have located a feeding field, ask permission to hunt that afternoon, right away the following morning, or both, as it is important to hunt the field as soon as possible after finding it. Set up as many high quality decoys as you can get, including a combination of silhouettes, rags, full-bodies, windsocks, and even kites, and insure that your spread imitates natural movement that geese are accustomed to seeing from the air. Geese will not approach any kind of unusual obstacle in a field, and they normally prefer to feed in the center of a field rather than along fencerows or woods, so you should select your blind spot accordingly. Look for the highest spot in the field as close to the center as possible. Set all decoys facing into the wind, in natural feeding positions, with the majority as feeder heads and only one or two upright heads for every dozen feeders. One of the simplest, cheapest and easiest blinds that can work very effectively especially in the early part of the season, is to lie on the ground and cover yourself with camouflage netting or cloth with some pieces of natural camo such as corn stalks. If there is snow on the ground, a bed sheet will work effectively, or you can use white camo clothing. From this point on, the quality of your hunt will be determined by your calling ability. Insure that everyone in your group lies perfectly still until the geese are in range, which is usually when they start to settle down into your decoys. Then, on the assigned leaders command, everyone should raise and fire in unison with pre-established shooting zones and which bird each hunter will take on the initial shot. This will not only increase your excitement and bag from each flock, it will make for a safer hunt. Be prepared to lie on cold, damp or wet ground for a long time before fast and furious action happens quickly and close at hand. Wing shooting is often hindered by frozen fingers and stiffened muscles, and most shots are taken from a sitting or kneeling position. If your field looks like it may provide continued good hunting, you may want to ask permission to dig a pit blind. If you've acted ethically and responsibly during your hunt, the landowner may readily grant permission, only asking that you fill in your pits at the end of the season. If you dig a pit during mid-season, you should carry away the soil that you've just dug up rather that throwing it into the field near your blind, as freshly turned soil is readily spotted from the air and may spook wary geese. When the pit is dug, you can cover it with wire screen covered with natural camo material that matches the surroundings.

Another popular method of taking feeding geese is to stalk or sneak up on them. If you spot feeding geese, and have permission from the landowner but no set-up in the field, a sneak hunt might be your best opportunity. Patience and luck will be your greatest assets when you attempt to sneak up on feeding geese, as they will almost always feed away from obstacles that you might use for cover, and there will always be one or more sentries on the highest ground watching for the slightest hint of danger. Even the smallest sign of your presence will cause the alarm to be sounded and the entire flock will flush immediately. Crawling on your belly toward a flock of feeding geese can be very exciting as well as nerve racking. First observe the flock to try and determine which direction they are feeding towards, as they move constantly, kind of leap frogging over each other with each family group trying to get to the best food first. If you can discover which direction they are heading and make your stalk from that direction, you will at least have the advantage of having them work their way towards your position of ambush. At best fifty yards is as close as you are likely to get regardless of how adept you are at crawling on your belly through frozen, icy mud or water. Your odds can be increased if the geese are feeding in a partially harvested cornfield, as you can use the remaining standing corn as cover to move as close as possible before your crawl. An old-fashioned pincer movement with two hunters can work effectively under the right conditions. One of you should position yourself in any available cover as close as possible, upwind of the flock, trying to determine the most logical flight path for geese that want to escape. Your second hunter makes the stalk into the wind toward the geese, and if this stalk is successful, so much the better, as you may get some shooting and perhaps a goose or two. Regardless of the stalker's success, the crack shot that is hidden in the weeds will likely have the flock flying directly into the wind and towards him or her. If everything goes right, you should end up with another goose or two, or in your wildest dreams the elusive triple.

Most geese taken over water sets are harvested by duck hunters. Some areas hold large concentrations of both ducks and geese and decoy spreads can be set for both at the same time. The best way to insure success is to have the greatest number of lifelike decoys that you can afford. Water sets typically work well late in the season, when most of the surrounding area is frozen, and the open water provides a resting area for the geese. Geese like large bodies of open water with grain fields nearby, so concentrate on larger rivers, bays and flooded plains.

Hunting geese if often the easy part, and killing them is normally the hardest. These big birds usually appear to be much closer than they actually are and seem to fly much slower than they actually do. The two most common mistakes are shooting at geese that are too far away, resulting in cripples, or shooting behind them. The old tale about shooting at the lead goose of a flock and taking the one behind it certainly has some merit. One way to prevent shots that are too long is to place markers around your blind at about 40 yards, and geese within these markers should be within range as long as they are not too high. Another way is to wait until you can see their feet and eyes clearly, and then the goose should be within range, providing your eyesight is normal. To help prevent shooting behind geese, try and keep a good lead always thinking to yourself that they fly faster than they seem, and always aim for the head. Hunting geese is always the worst when the moon is full, as they tend to feed nocturnally and return to the safety of the refuge by day. The best times to hunt are the days that are the worst for your comfort, such as cold, windy just in front of a storm or foggy or misty days, where geese will move all day. One final thought to make your hunt more successful. "As long as the geese are coming toward you don't call, don't move, and above all, don't shoot unless they are settling in the decoys."