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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Cackling goose presents ID challenge

I’ve been pondering the cackling goose since I encountered a giant flock of them along the Red River Greenway.

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Cackling goose.
Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – Last week the swan. This week the goose, but a goose of a different kind, the cackling goose.

    In the great debate over bird species, the splitters won this one. Cackling goose was considered a subspecies of the familiar Canada goose, but genetics have shown that it is a separate – though very similar – species.

    In the past, this species, then considered a subspecies of Canada goose, was called Richardson’s goose or sometimes Hutchin’s goose. Its scientific name is Branta hutchinsii, indicating its close relationship to the larger Canada goose tribe, which encompasses several subspecies.

    Cackling geese can be told from Canada geese, though identification requires a close look. Here are the field marks that the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology provides on its website.

    First, it is a small, stocky goose. Its legs are short, meaning it appears lower to the ground. Likewise, the bill is small and joins the forehead as a sharper angle than is the case with other, similar geese. Its neck is short, adding to the overall compact look of the bird. Finally, and perhaps more or less definitively, it lacks the white color that Canada geese display. Most cackling geese have only a hint of white where the neck meets the breast of the birds.

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    I’ve been pondering the cackling goose since I encountered a giant flock of them along the Red River Greenway. They were on the river, I was looking down at them from a snow-covered trail. The geese were outrageously noisy. I heard them when I went out the front door of our house, which is perhaps a quarter of a mile from the Greenway, and perhaps a bit more.

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    The birds that pass through our area are bound for Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound on the mid-Atlantic Coast. They use wetlands in North Dakota as a stopover in migration.

    The noise of the geese lured me along. The flock was a nervous bunch of birds. Groups of two dozen or more kept rising, with some returning and some apparently heading south.

    Their calls are another hint at identification. Their calls are higher pitched than Canada geese. So I was pretty sure I was tracking cackling geese, as soon as I left the house.

    Unlike the Canada goose, which has become re-established in the north central states, the cackling goose is an Arctic nester. Its breeding range runs from the Bering Sea coast of Alaska across Arctic Canada to the southern tip of Baffin Island.

    Cackling geese winter on the southern Great Plains, from the Texas Panhandle to southern Nebraska, and on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Smaller numbers winter on the Pacific Coast from the San Francisco Bay to Puget Sound, as well as interior California and Nevada.

    Of course, the birds from the central part of the range, pass through our area on their way south.

    Cackling geese do flock with Canada geese, so it’s possible to score a birding twofer by examining a flock of geese.

    The emergence of the cackling goose as a separate species is relatively recent. Richard Crossley treats them separately in his “Crossley Guide,” which was published in 2011. He adds a couple of other identification clues. One is that the breast is paler than Canada geese, tending to be a little more gray than brown – but not always. Plus, he points out that most cackling geese “look small and cute compared to Canada geese,” but again, “not always.”

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    He also warns that both Canada and cackling geese “show great variation in characters such as shape of white throat patch, white ring at the base of the neck, and paleness of underparts.” He adds that “these features are too variable to be of significant use in field ID.”

    So there you have it – the swan last week, the goose this week.

    And next week, the turkey.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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