Photo: Canada goose

Illustration by Cynthia J. House


Map: Canada goose range


The “honker” is the common goose in most of North America. Polytypic. Length 45" (114 cm).

Identification A large and long-necked goose; legs and bill black. Adult: black neck and head with a contrasting white cheek patch. Body brown, paler below, often darker on rear flanks. Belly and vent white. Flight: brown above including wings, lower back blackish, as is the tail, both contrasting strongly with a white rump band.

Geographic Variation Seven subspecies in North America. Subspecies canadensis breeds Ungava Bay east to Newfoundland, wintering on Atlantic seaboard; interior breeds west of Ungava Bay through Hudson Bay lowlands to northern Manitoba and north to southern Baffin Island and southwestern Greenland, wintering throughout the East; maxima (“giant” Canada goose) breeds central Manitoba and Minnesota south to Kansas and western Kentucky, some resident, others short-distance migrants; moffitti breeds south-central British Columbia to western Manitoba south to Colorado and Oklahoma, wintering southern portion of breeding range to southern California, northern Mexico, and Texas; parvipes (“lesser” Canada goose) breeds in boreal forest zone from central Alaska to northwestern Hudson Bay, wintering eastern Washington and eastern Oregon to northeastern Mexico and eastern Texas; fulva (“dusky” Canada goose) breeds in Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound, Alaska, wintering in Willamette Valley, Oregon; occidentalis (“Vancouver” Canada goose) breeds from Glacier Bay, Alaska, to northern Vancouver Island, many resident, others winter in Willamette and Columbia Valleys, Oregon. These subspecies intergrade to various extents and can be thought of as fitting 3 general groups. The subspecies canadensis, interior, maxima and moffitti are very similar, with maxima being largest and palest. The “lesser” Canada goose (parvipes) varies in size, but on average is smaller than all other Canada geese. The “Vancouver” and “dusky” Canada geese are very dark, color saturated, the “dusky” being smaller than the “Vancouver.”

Similar Species Due to the split of the cackling goose, there is a vexing new problem in field identification, mainly that the larger cackling goose (subspecies taverneri) is close in size to the smallest Canada goose (subspecies parvipes). In the past, taverneri and parvipes were grouped together as a single subspecies; however, recent studies clearly show them to be genetically different. This issue may be due to confusion of exactly what taverneri is; the type specimen is from the wintering area in California rather than from the breeding area.

Therefore, smallish geese from various regions of Alaska have been called taverneri; no doubt some of these were really parvipes. As well, parvipes has been reported to hybridize with hutchinsii ("Richardson's goose") in the eastern Arctic, as well as with taverneri in Alaska. However, conclusive proof of this hybridization has not yet been established. Until this confusion is clearly sorted out, identification will be problematic and often impossible as we do not know the range of variability of the 2 troublesome entities. (More information available in Complete Birds of North America.)

Voice Call: males give a lower pitched hwonk, females a higher hrink.

Status and Distribution Abundant, the birds have been introduced to Western Europe. Breeding: various freshwater wetlands, golf courses. Migration: complex due to number of different populations and staging areas, however most wild populations of the Canada goose are migratory. In modern times “feral” Canada geese have been introduced in various parts of the continent, many of these being primarily stocks descended from mixes of “giant” Canada goose and others. Many of these birds are residents in urban areas, or they perform only minor migrations. Migrant geese tend to leave breeding grounds in August–September, peak in October, and arrive at wintering areas from mid-October–November. Spring movements begin in February, peaking in March. Winter: various grassy habitats, from urban parks to native wetlands; also agricultural fields.

Population This goose has dramatically increased in number since the 1940s; it is now estimated that nearly 5 million Canada geese live in North America, and the birds are considered urban pests in some regions.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

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