A Goose by Many Names

Jan 24, 2018

If I asked you how many species of geese were on the Cape and Islands right now, what would you say? One, maybe two? The actual number this week is five, with seven species on the all-time list. This may surprise those only familiar with that perceived scourge of golf course and ballfield, the Canada Goose. I’ll get to the obscure species in a minute, but I want to start with the Canada. 

Because, while pooping in parks and hissing at small children have probably ranked the Canada Goose barely above “member of congress” on the popularity scale, even they have an interesting story to tell.

There may not be many people left who remember when Canada Geese were strictly a migrant from the far away Arctic tundra. A century ago, the sound of a skein of honking Canadas echoing through the crisp autumn air conveyed a sense of true wildness. But when live decoys were banned in the 1930s, hunters set their captive Canada Geese free, and they went on to become the year-round golf course loiterers we know and love, or not, today. For this reason, if you refer to them as Canadian Geese in some online forum, local birders will practically break their fingers pounding their computer keys to quickly correct you, as the species name is in fact, Canada Goose.

But these local yokel breeders are still joined in winter by their wild, Arctic nesting Canadian cousins, many of which can been seen around the Cape and Islands in winter. And it’s these wild flocks that sometimes bring with them a special treat in the form of one of the rare geese, like a Snow Goose or Greater White-fronted Goose, both of which can be found on the Outer Cape this week. Three Snow Geese have been around the First Encounter marshes in Eastham for several weeks now, and a Greater White-fronted Goose, known as a speckle-belly to the old hunters, has taken up residence on a ballfield in Provincetown of late. Snow Geese winter by the hundreds of thousands in mid-Atlantic marshes and southern rice fields, but are always scarce in New England – one to a few can be expected here and there in a Cape winter. A Greater White-front is an even more noteworthy sighting, with one seen per winter if we’re lucky.  


To see the rarest of the geese this winter you’ll need to board a ferry, as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have been hoarding them. The Ross’s Goose is an adorable mini-me to the larger and more common Snow Goose, and up to two have been around on the islands in places like Bartlett’s Farm on Nantucket. How rare are they? As far as I know, there has never been a Ross’s Goose seen on Cape Cod.


Hopefully by now you are saying “hey, what about Brant?” Smaller and more subtle than their honking big cousins in every way, Brant are strictly saltwater geese of Arctic coastal tundra in summer, and temperate coastal waters in winter. Tens of thousands once wintered in Massachusetts until the eel grass blight in the 1930s knocked out their food source, but numbers have recovered in recent years as they’ve switched to other food sources, like the green algae known as sea lettuce. Their soft, almost soothing calls are a far cry from the harsh honks of the Canadas. To me they sound like a gentle Chewbacca, but maybe I’m alone on that one.


Rounding out the all-time goose list for our region are the uber-rare Pink-footed Goose, and the Cackling Goose, which is essentially a Mallard-sized Canada Goose. We go years without seeing either species, but they could turn up at any time. So make sure you cast a critical eye on those geese whenever you take a gander at a flock. And if you happen to see me out there sorting through some geese as you’re driving around, don’t be afraid to honk!