Which Canada Goose?


“The Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, is a wild goose with a black head and neck, white patches on the face, and a brownish-gray body.”  So begins the simple sounding description found in Wikipedia.  But birders know better!

At one time, there were no fewer than eleven recognized subspecies of the Canada Goose.  However in 2004, the four smallest of these subspecies were split off by the American Ornithologists’ Union‘s (AOU) Committee on Classification and Nomenclature to form a new species, the Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii.

The current recognized list of Canada Goose subspecies includes:

  • Atlantic Canada Goose, Branta canadensis canadensis
  • Interior Canada Goose, Branta canadensis interior
  • Giant Canada Goose, Branta canadensis maxima
  • Moffitt’s Canada Goose, Branta canadensis moffitti
  • Vancouver Canada Goose, Branta canadensis fulva
  • Dusky Canada Goose, Branta canadensis occidentalis
  • part of “Lesser complex”, Branta canadensis parvipes

While birding Sunday in Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area, I noticed the two geese pictured above.  I noticed right away the difference in size and overall coloration.  The goose on the right is smaller and darker than the left goose, lacking much of the buffy coloration that extends down from the base of the neck of the left goose.

It seems apparent that these geese are, at a minimum, probably different subspecies.  But is the goose on the right a Cackling Goose?


Here is a publicly available photo (source: Wikipedia) of a Cackling Goose brood.  The goose I photographed certainly doesn’t seem to match many of the characteristics of these geese.

So what is it?  A “lesser” Canada Goose?  One of the other smaller subspecies more common to the west coast than New Jersey?  Who knows?  Without a DNA sample, the true identity of my mystery goose will never be known.

The Canada Goose, especially those birds which occupy the large non-migrating summer flocks that foul our parks and recreation areas, is considered to be a noisy pest by many birders and non-birders alike.

Winter flocks of Canada Geese offer an opportunity to see this species in a new light.  With a larger variety of sizes and color patterns to ponder, even these common birds become interesting again.

Good Birding,



3 thoughts on “Which Canada Goose?

  1. Sandra Keller

    I don’t think small enough for Cackling. It sure is educational scanning through those Canada Goose flocks and seeing the variety!
    Am enjoying all your posts. What are you up to know – numbers I mean!

    1. njbigyear Post author

      Hey Sandra…I know what you mean – Canada Geese come in a surprising array of color patterns and sizes…and the line between a small Canada and large Cackling can be tough. Makes winter birding a little more interesting. I’m up to 166…not bad….February was a challenging month.

  2. Pingback: Which Canada Goose – Part 2? | My New Jersey Big Year

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