by Whit Gibbons

November 24, 2013

I checked with experts Bobby Kennamer and Carol Eldridge who conduct research on waterfowl at the Savannah River Ecology Lab to get answers to these very similar questions I received last week.

Q: I live in Atlanta and twice this autumn I have seen flocks of geese flying north. Do you have any idea why the geese would be headed in the "wrong" direction?

Q: We see geese flying very low over our neighborhood, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon. We don't see them every day, but we do see them often. There have been as many as a couple of dozen (flying in the classic V) and as few as three (in a straight line). Because they are flying so low, they don't seem to be migrating. We live in Tuscaloosa, Ala., about a mile from a lake. Do you think the geese are likely to spend the winter here? If so, where do you think they are flying to (or from) when we see them?

A: Most Canada geese seen in Georgia and Alabama, as well as in the Carolinas and elsewhere in the Southeast, are year-round residents that do not migrate at all.

They prefer to spend the night on the still water of a reservoir, lake, or pond, but because they eat grass, they forage during the day on grassy expanses, including golf courses and parks.

Most of these resident, nonmigratory geese simply fly back and forth between foraging locations and roosting sites. Therefore, they could be flying in any direction, and the distances they travel daily could be just a few miles or up to a hundred miles or more.

In contrast to several years ago, when Canada geese were prevalent in the South mainly during winter, these resident, nonmigratory ones can now be seen every month of the year. They are often seen in small flocks, flying in the V formation we associate with waterfowl.

Watching a squadron of wild geese coming in for a landing on a lake at sunset can be a magnificent sight, but wild goose behavior also has some negative aspects. For several years, the wildlife departments in southern states have been faced with the consequences of overpopulation of resident Canada geese.

One of the problems is overgrazing on agricultural fields, lawns, and golf courses. The droppings left by these large birds make the geese particularly unpopular visitors to golf greens and fairways.

Canada geese are considered such a nuisance in some areas that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows states to issue permits making it legal to kill the developing eggs in a nest.

Canada geese are the most familiar of the more than a dozen kinds of geese found in the world. Several are native to the United States, with the Canada goose and snow goose commonly being seen in great numbers.

Snow geese range far into northern Canada during summer and migrate as far south as Mexico in winter. Like the Canada goose, snow geese can be found from coast to coast but with a patchier distribution pattern.

The blue goose, which is familiar to hunters and bird enthusiasts, is a dark-colored genetic variant of the snow goose.

The Hawaiian state bird is a distinctive species known as the nene (pronounced "nay nay"). Based on research involving DNA analyses, the nene's closest relative genetically is the Canada goose.

Presumably a migrating flock ended up in the Hawaiian islands half a million years ago and decided these new surroundings were nicer than the cold north. Isolated from the mainland for eons, these geese eventually evolved into the new species, which does not migrate.

The southern United States now has its own resident goose populations as well, so we may as well welcome them as part of the native fauna.

Considering that a documented record exists of a wild Canada goose living more than 30 years, we should assume they will be around indefinitely.

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