All four subspecies of Cackling Goose nest in the far north, often beyond the range of Canada Geese. One subspecies, the Aleutian Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia), breeds on Alaska's outer Aleutian Islands. Two more (B.h. minima and B.h. taverneri) are found around western and northern Alaska, respectively, with the latter occurring as far east as the upper Yukon Territory. These three subspecies winter mainly in the Pacific Northwest. The fourth subspecies (B.h. hutchinsii) breeds further east, around Nunavut and the upper Hudson Bay. In cold months, it migrates across the Midwest, wintering as far south as Mexico. Also called Richardson's Goose, this subspecies is occasionally found on the East Coast, mixed with wintering flocks of Canada Geese.
Outside of North America, the Aleutian Cackling Goose occurs on the Kurils, a string of islands stretching from Kamchatka, Russia to northeastern Japan. Although they were extirpated from the area over the last century, a re-introduced population has actually re-established its ancient migratory route to Japan, where they spend the winter.
Cackling Geese have far more limited habitat requirements than Canada Geese. They generally prefer tundra, breeding on coastal marshes, deltas, floodplains, and islands in small ponds. However, they occasionally nest on cliffs and rocky hillsides. Aleutian Cackling Geese nest on the steep, grassy slopes of the many islands that make up its breeding range. During migration and winter, they inhabit a wider variety of habitats, and make ready use of agricultural areas for feeding.
On the breeding grounds, Cackling Geese feed mainly in grassy and marshy environments, selecting newly emerged grasses, sedges, and other vegetation. Around migration, their diet tends toward higher energy foods, such as grains, seeds, and berries. In winter, they can be found grazing in fields of wheat, alfalfa, barley, and other grains.
Cackling Geese pairs stay together year-round, often for life. As they nest in the far north where the breeding season is short, females lay eggs shortly after arrival on the breeding grounds; using the same nest year after year helps hasten this process. The nest site is carefully chosen to reduce exposure to the wind and elements while maximizing exposure to sunlight. The male guards the nest while the female incubates the eggs. Upon hatching, goslings are led almost immediately to the brooding area, where both parents look after them.
Spring migration brings Cackling Geese to their breeding grounds as soon as open water and new vegetation are available. In fall, they begin moving south from the northernmost portions of their range as early as late August. At staging areas further south, large flocks often congregate prior to the onset of harsh weather. As weather dictates, they continue south along several established migratory routes. Hudson Bay and central Canadian populations winter as far south as Mexico. Yukon and continental Alaskan populations make their way toward California and the Pacific Northwest, some birds migrating over land, others over the ocean. The Aleutian population is thought to travel as far as California in one long, direct, oversea flight. Part of the introduced Aleutian population makes a similar flight in the other direction, wintering in northern Japan.