Cackling Goose

Branta hutchinsii

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • ANATIDAE
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Ganso cascareador
  • unknown
Introduction
The Cackling Goose is one of North America's "newest" birds. In 2004, the American Ornithologist's Union determined that the four smallest (of eleven) subspecies of the Canada Goose were actually a unique species--now officially called the Cackling Goose. This "split" was based largely upon mitochondrial DNA analysis, but certain characteristics of appearance and behavior also separate the two species. However, even experienced bird watchers may have difficulty separating Cackling from Canada Geese, especially during migration, when mixed flocks occur.
Appearance Description
Superficially, the Cackling Goose seems like a miniaturized version of the Canada Goose. Most are visibly smaller than even the tiniest Canada Goose, but the difference can be negligible, and difficult to determine in the field. Size is slightly more helpful in the east, where stray wintering Cackling Geese are noticeably dwarfed by the region's more typically giant Canada Geese.  There is considerable overlap in size among the four Cackling Goose subspecies. Weights of the various subspecies fall anywhere between 1500-2500 grams, compared to about 3000 grams for the smallest of Canada Geese.  The smallest of the Cackling Goose subspecies are 25 inches long and weigh 3.5 pounds (1600 grams), with a wingspan of 43 inches.
 

Cackling Geese also tend to have rounder heads, and shorter, stubbier bills than Canada Geese. Coloration varies among Cackling Geese, but they tend to be darker on the west coast and lighter in the east. Groups of them often stand out within a flock of Canada Geese due to their smaller size.In addition, Cackling Geese generally have a more rapid and higher pitched, or "cackling" call. Birds of both species may display a white collar at the base of the neck, but this is often most discernable on the Aleutian Cackling Goose.

Range Distribution
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.
Habitat
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.
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.
Reproduction
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.  
Migration

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.

  • Unknown
  • Unknown
  • No current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Since the split, many birdwatchers have been devoting more time and attention to identifying migratory Cackling Geese. This will contribute to our knowledge of the species' original migratory range. There is much to learn about the Cackling Goose, but the overall population appears stable.
 
Conservation Issues
The tale of the Aleutian Cackling Goose is one of the true success stories of the Endangered Species Act. By 1940, this, the smallest subspecies of the Cackling Goose, was feared extinct, eradicated by Arctic foxes that had been introduced across the Aleutian Islands for the fur trade. In 1963, however, a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists found a remnant population of fewer than 300 birds on Buldir, one of the most remote of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Re-establishment efforts were begun promptly, and the Aleutian Goose was listed as Endangered in 1967 under Federal laws that predated the Endangered Species Act of 1973. By 1990, the population had grown to over 6,000 birds, and the species was downgraded from Endangered to Threatened. By 2001, the population had rebounded to well over 30,000 and was subsequently de-listed as an Endangered Species.
 
A complicating factor for wildlife managers is the fact that some subspecies of both Cackling and Canada Geese are more stable than others. Hence, management techniques and policies for both species must undergo constant review, particularly in the Northwest, where Cackling and Canada Geese flock together most commonly.
What You Can Do
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Read about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Endangered Species Program as well as the Endangered Species Act.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Kortright, Francis H. 1943. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C.
 
Mowbray, T. B., C. R. Ely, J. S. Sedinger, and R. E. Trost. 2002. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 682 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. Identification of Canada and Cackling Goose. Oct 2004.
 
University of Tennessee at Martin. Road to Recovery for the Aleutian Canada Goose. 2005.
Conservation Status References
Kortright, Francis H. 1943. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C.
 
Mowbray, T. B., C. R. Ely, J. S. Sedinger, and R. E. Trost. 2002. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 682 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. Identification of Canada and Cackling Goose. Oct 2004.
 
University of Tennessee at Martin. Road to Recovery for the Aleutian Canada Goose. 2005.