The Lesser Snow Goose

(Chen caerulescens caerulescens)

by Jay Sharp

Snow Geese

The lesser snow goose - one of the most abundant, wide ranging, gregarious and noisy water birds in North America - stages a showy pageant in the Southwest and central United States every year through the fall and winter seasons. “The spectacle of a flock of these white geese flying,” said naturalist George Bird Grinnell in his 1901 book American Duck Shooting, “is a very beautiful one. Sometimes they perform remarkable evolutions on the wing, and if seen at a distance look like so many snowflakes being hurled hither and thither by the wind.”

Snow

Snow Geese in flight, looking almost like what George Bird Grinnell called “so many snowflakes.”

Distinctive Features

The true lesser snow goose - somewhat larger than a Mallard Duck - usually occurs in a white phase, but it may also occur in a blue phase. In either phase, males and females resemble each other closely.

 

  • Lesser snow goose’s size: Length, approximately two and a half feet; wingspan, roughly three feet; weight, five to six pounds; male, slightly larger than the female.
  • White phase appearance: Snowy white plumage overall, but with black wing tips.
  • Blue phase appearance: Dark gray to bluish plumage on back, breast and trailing wing feathers; pale to dark plumage on belly and leading wing feathers; white feathers on head.
  • Common white and blue phase features: Pinkish orange bills and feet; wedge-shaped heads; serrated edges along sides of bill, suggesting a sardonic grin.
  • Hatchlings: White phase, yellow; dark phase, virtually black.

 

The gregarious Snow Geese mixing with Sand Hill Cranes in their feeding grounds.

The gregarious Snow Geese mixing with Sand Hill Cranes in their feeding grounds.

The lesser snow goose has two close relatives -- the somewhat larger Greater Snow Goose (Chen caerulescensa atlantica), which generally occupies a range farther north and east, and the smaller Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii), which shares much of the lesser snow goose’s range. Where their ranges overlap, the lesser snow goose and the Ross’s Goose may interbreed, producing a hybrid that is intermediate in size.

Snow Geese leaving a corn field after feeding.

Snow Geese leaving a corn field after feeding.

Distribution and Migration Habits

The lesser snow goose, with a population well into the millions, nests in dense colonies in the northwestern corner of Greenland, the northern reaches of Canada, the northern edge of Alaska, and the primal landscape of far eastern Siberia’s Wrangle Island. Many nest well above the Arctic Circle.

Anticipating the coming of fall, lesser snow goose breeding populations congregate at staging areas in flocks of tens of thousands, preparing for their annual journeys southward. Those that gather near the shores of Alaska’s northern coast and near the Mackenzie River delta on the Northwest Territories’ coast will head southward, down the Pacific and Central flyways, for the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They will take up winter residence primarily in California’s central valleys, the lower Colorado River, south/central New Mexico’s Rio Grande wetlands, Mexico’s northern Chihuahuan desert river basins and playa wetlands, and Mexico’s Gulf of California shorelines.

 Snow Geese descending to water's surface.

Snow Geese descending to water’s
surface.

In early spring, the lesser snow goose populations again gather in large numbers at staging sites, preparing to reverse their fall courses in their return to their nesting areas.

According to authorities Thomas B. Mowbray, Fred Cooke and Barbara Ganter, the lesser snow goose follows well defined spring and fall migration corridors. Its journey is “characterized as a combination of long stopovers with rapid and distant flights between areas, flying at high altitudes.”

Habitat and Diet

In the western, midcontinent and easternmost nesting grounds, lesser snow goose breeding populations typically prefer river mouths, river islands, lake shorelines and tundra ponds north of the Arctic Circle. Using their serrated bills and tough serrated tongues as tools, they grub on roots, underground stems and aquatic plant shoots.

In their Southwest and Mexican wintering ranges, the lesser snow goose flocks favor valleys, river marshes, impoundments and desert playas. They feed, often in large gatherings, on fresh shoots of aquatic plants and scavenge in agriculture fields for waste grain.

Behavior and Life Cycle

During its second winter or second spring migration, say Mowbray, Cooke and Ganter, the lesser snow goose selects a mate and forges a lifelong bond, remaining faithful to its white or blue phase in its choice. In courtship, the male inflates its body, walks tall like John Wayne, and follows the female. He may compete with another male for her attention. She plays coy, pretending to ignore him before she accepts his overtures.

 Snow Geese taking flight above corn field.

Snow Geese taking flight above corn field.

Upon reaching the breeding grounds, a pair begins to flirt, with the male bobbing his head and cocking his tail and the female dipping her head and bill. Every day, early in the morning, the pair will mate, then celebrate the event by stretching, flapping, preening, bathing and vocalizing.

When egg-laying time arrives, the pair joins a large colony of nesting kin. The female, with the male, selects a nesting site.

She prepares a “scrape” several feet in diameter on the surface of the ground, preferably in well-drained sandy soil near sheltering plants or rocks. As she lays her eggs, usually numbering two to six, she lines her nest with plant material and downy feathers. She incubates her clutch - her only one for the season - with her mate usually standing nearby, vigilantly overseeing the proceedings. The chicks hatch within three to four weeks, and they may leave the nest with their parents as soon as the following day, ready to learn the art of being a lesser snow goose. Growing rapidly, they will be prepared to accompany their parents on the long fall migration. The family may remain together until the following breeding season. According to Lisa Drew and Chris Madson, writing for National Wildlife Magazine, the lesser snow goose commonly lives into its teens and occasionally for 20 years or more.

Snow Geese on water at twilight.

Snow Geese on water at twilight.

Life’s Hazards

The lesser snow goose is most vulnerable during nesting and hatching, when various predators may steal eggs or attack the goslings. However, adults may also fall to various predators.

Several years ago, at the Bosque del Apache, near the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, I saw a lesser snow goose become a meal for a Golden Eagle.

The male and female both mount a vigorous defense of their nest and their goslings, attacking a would-be predator with their feathers ruffled, wings spread and necks extended. They sound the alarm to the flock, which may take flight in an explosion of white and bluish gray.

Some Interesting Facts

  • The lesser snow goose may cover 1500 to 2000 miles in its spring and fall migrations, flying at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour and elevations of as much as 7500 to 8000 feet.
  • In migratory journeys, a flock, in a continual chorus of calls, typically flies in undulating, long diagonal lines or U formations, giving rise to the colloquial name of “wavies.”
  • The lesser snow goose population has increased dramatically - to perhaps as many as five or six million, according to some estimates - over the past few decades, probably because global warming and earlier melting snows in the breeding areas have opened new nesting grounds and changing agricultural practices in the wintering areas have provided increased food sources.
  • In some areas, the lesser snow goose, with its growing abundance, has overwhelmed many of its food plants, both in its summer and winter grounds.

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