Where Do Geese Go in the Winter?

Written by Andrew Wood
Updated: March 17, 2023
© iStock.com/bilbowden
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No doubt at some point in your life you’ve seen a gaggle of geese flying overhead in their distinctive “V-shaped” formation. Perhaps they were migrating south for the winter, or north in the spring. But do you know basic details, like why they migrate or why they fly in a “V”? Are you aware of where they come from and where they go? It’s an interesting story. Let’s dive in!

Description of Geese

Canadian geese, Canada goose
Geese nest on the ground and, like other birds, their young hatch from eggs.

©Daniel Wright98/Shutterstock.com

Geese are a type of waterfowl that belong to the family Anatidae, which also includes ducks and swans. There are about 29 different species of geese, including Canadian geese, snow geese, and Brant geese. They vary in size, color, and habitat preference. These birds are distinguished by their long necks, webbed feet, and distinctive “honking” and “hissing” vocalizations. They can grow to 23-50 inches long with a wingspan of 4.2-6.1 feet. Their feathers are typically brown, grey, black, or white. They are excellent swimmers and long-endurance fliers, achieving flight speeds of up to 55 mph. And they cover as much as 1,500 miles of flight distance in just 24 hours!

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Geese nest on the ground and, like other birds, their young hatch from eggs. The average clutch size is five eggs. Geese are omnivores, consuming plant matter, insects, grubs, and small fish or tadpoles when they can catch them. They form strong family bonds, so many of the migratory formations you see flying overhead consist of family groups. These birds have relatively long lifespans, living from 12-26 years.

Some species are protected, while others can be hunted in the proper season by sportsmen with a hunting license. By all accounts, goose meat is something of an acquired taste. It is all dark meat, and some describe it as rich and savory. They say it is “more flavorful than chicken, and closer in taste to roast beef.” Others say that it can be stringy, tough, and gamey. Some of these differences come down to whether the bird was raised domestically or hunted in the wild.

Habitat of Geese

Do Geese Have Teeth
Geese can be highly territorial and aggressive during nesting season.

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Geese can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including freshwater and saltwater environments. They are common in wetlands such as marshes, swamps, and bogs. They also live along rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. In the wild, geese typically breed and nest near water, and their populations are concentrated in suitable habitats for breeding. During migration, geese will use a variety of habitats as resting and feeding areas, such as fields, grasslands, and parks.

Geese also adapt well to human-altered landscapes. Many species have expanded their range as a result of human activities, such as agriculture and urbanization. For instance, Canadian geese have become common in urban areas. They can be found in parks, golf courses, and residential areas. They are attracted to these areas because of the abundance of food and the lack of natural predators.

The high density of geese in urban areas can lead to garden damage and unsanitary conditions on sidewalks from droppings. Geese can also be highly territorial and aggressive during nesting season, making them a nuisance to passing pedestrians and pets. Flying geese are a major hazard to airplanes as they can get pulled into the engines, potentially causing a crash. Municipalities and private landowners use a number of methods to control the goose population. These include imposing bans on feeding geese and modifying the landscape to make it less accommodating. Other methods involve covering ponds in the winter, installing devices to scare them off, using chemical repellants, or capturing and relocating them.

Ecological Role of Geese

Geese play an important role in the ecosystem. Some of the ways geese contribute to their ecosystem include:

  1. Serving as a food source: Geese are a food source for predators such as foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey.
  1. Helping with seed dispersal: Geese eat a variety of plants and fruits. This helps to disperse the seeds to other areas through their droppings.
  1. Controlling aquatic vegetation: Geese feed on aquatic vegetation. It helps to control the growth and distribution of these plants, maintaining a balance in the ecosystem.
  1. Acting as indicators of environmental health: Geese are sensitive to changes in their environment. They are used as indicators of wetland and water quality.
  1. Maintaining biodiversity: Geese are a part of the food web. Their presence helps to maintain the biodiversity in their ecosystem.

What Geese Do in Winter

Geese in V formation
Geese fly in a V formation to take advantage of air currents created by their wings.

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Geese are migratory birds, which means they travel long distances between their breeding and wintering grounds. The specific location where geese go in the winter depends on the species of goose. Some geese migrate shorter distances and will spend the winter in milder climates in their breeding range. Others migrate much further and spend the winter in more temperate or even tropical climates. Canada geese, for example, spend the summers in the Arctic Ocean islands of Canada. Then, they migrate to the southern United States or Northern Mexico for the winter – distances of 2,000-3,000 miles! Central European geese migrate to Spain and North Africa, while Central Asian geese fly to India and Pakistan.

Geese have strong homing instincts, which allow them to return to the same breeding and wintering grounds year after year. Migrating geese use a variety of cues to navigate, such as the position of the sun and stars, the Earth’s magnetic field, and ground landmarks. They also use learned cues, such as the location of previous stopovers, to help them navigate.

Geese form strong family bonds and typically migrate in formation with a flock of their kin. During their migration, they fly in a characteristic “V-shape.” The lead goose experiences the greatest wind resistance, while the others fly in its slipstream to conserve energy. This technique is also used by competitive bicyclists. Geese take turns in the lead position to give each other a chance to rest.

Once They Arrive

Once they arrive, the geese will spend the winter feeding on grains, grasses, and other plants. In the spring, the geese will begin their journey back to their breeding grounds in northern regions. Geese are able to fly long distances because they are able to store fat in their bodies. This provides them with the energy they need to make the journey.

Should You Feed Geese?

Many kind-hearted people want to feed geese in public parks or private ponds. They either want to have a closer encounter with them or they feel sorry for them and want to help them survive. However, there are many good reasons why you should not feed geese.

  • Feeding geese makes them less cautious around people. This could later get them killed by a hunter or hit by a car on their journeys. It can also make them aggressive about approaching humans to take food away from them.
  • Foods like bread, crackers, or popcorn are filling but have little nutritional value. If birds fill up on them, they will feel full and not seek out the high-nutrient foods they need. This can lead to malnutrition and numerous health problems.
  • If food is too easily available, it can cause an overpopulation of geese in the area. This can lead to the spread of disease. This, in turn, leads to intervention by citizens or authorities to cull the goose population.
  • A high-carbohydrate diet causes geese to defecate more. Not only are their droppings smelly and unsightly, but they attract flies and other insects and can spread disease.
  • Uneaten, rotting bread left on the ground can attract rats, mice, and other vermin. It can also spread aspergillosis, a lung infection that can kill waterfowl.
  • Uneaten bread in the water contributes to algae growth, which threatens fish and other wildlife and clogs up waterways.

Where To See Wild Geese

You can visit a zoo to see exotic species of geese or stop by a farm to see domestic ones. But if you want to observe geese in the wild, some popular locations include:

  1. Wildlife refuges and wetlands: Many national wildlife refuges, state parks, and other protected areas have large populations of geese that winter there. These areas provide a safe and secure habitat for geese, making them a great place to see them.
  1. Coastal areas: Many species of geese spend the winter along coastal areas. This occurs particularly in the milder climates of the Southern United States and Mexico.
  1. Urban areas: Some species of geese, such as Canada geese, have adapted well to human-altered landscapes. They can be found in urban areas such as parks, golf courses, and residential areas.
  1. Agricultural fields: Geese will often feed in farmers’ fields, particularly in areas where they are protected from hunting.
  1. Migratory stopover: Some species of geese will stopover in specific areas during their migration. This provides people great opportunities to observe them in large numbers.

It’s important to check local regulations and guidelines before visiting any protected area. And you should always respect the wildlife and not disturb their habitat. Additionally, you can check with local birding groups, naturalist societies, or local Audubon Societies for specific locations and information on when and where to see geese in the winter.

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The Featured Image

Snow geese taking off at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Around 200,000 Snow Geese come to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge during the winter.
© iStock.com/bilbowden

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer, world traveler, and lifelong animal lover. Currently, I'm an "Emotional Support Human" to 4 dogs, 1 cat, and 2 guinea pigs. My favorite wild animal is the quokka, the most selfie-friendly animal in the world!

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