We are fortunate to have a flock of 17 snow geese visiting Goose Pond since October 22nd. On the water the flock (16 snows and 1 blue goose) is easy to pick out within the larger number of waterfowl including 3,000 Canada geese and 2,000 mallards. Snow and blue geese use to be listed as two species, but in 1972, they were combined into one species. The blue morph Snow Goose is controlled by a single gene, with dark color being partially dominant over white.
Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife, in 1991 that snow geese were a fairly common fall migrant in Wisconsin. Dick Hunt, DNR’s waterfowl biologist, thought that “Most snow geese overfly Wisconsin on a direct flight from James Bay to the Gulf. Their numbers stopping in fall varies widely and is highest in years when the nesting season is late.” They are usually found in low numbers in fall migration at Goose Pond. However, our high count of snows was on November 1, 1991 when we counted 1,230 birds. Our second highest count was on November 27, 1998 when we had 250 snows.
Historically, snow goose hunting in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after their population recovered. Currently the breeding population of the lesser snow goose exceeds 5 million birds, an increase of more than 300% since the mid-1970s. The population is increasing at a rate of more than 5% per year and the snow goose population indices are the highest they have been since population records have been kept.
To help control their numbers snow geese are hunted in spring in the Central Flyway. The spring hunting season in South Dakota has no daily bag limit and hunters can use electronic calls to bring birds into their blinds. That changes in fall to a daily bag limit of 50 and no electronic calls. In Wisconsin there is only fall hunting with a 20 day bag limit for snow geese. In many areas snow goose flocks number in the thousands and are difficult to hunt.
Snow geese are listed as a “keystone species”. With normal populations, grazing of grasses and sedges by snow geese in the tundra helps provide for a diversity of habitats that benefit other species. They also help maintain arctic fox and wolf populations that prey on this abundant species. Where snow geese are abundant on the breeding grounds they may degrade their own habitat by grubbing vigorously for food during the early breeding season, not only reducing their own breeding success but also compromising nesting shorebirds.
Many biologists think the shift in winter feeding has led to the over-abundance of geese. Winter may be the time of year that sets the upper limit to goose populations. Now, the abundance of waste agricultural grain (rice, corn, and wheat) has provided snow geese with excellent forage and has improved the survival of wintering geese. The national wildlife refuges bought to protect habitat also help to increase survival. Therefore, more geese are returning to the Arctic to breed each spring. Those returning geese are in much better physical condition than was the case when geese did not use agricultural grain but foraged in marshland.
Our small flock will probably stay until winter sets in. When you visit Goose Pond if you do not find them on the water check out surrounding fields for Canada geese and you may find the snow geese feeding with them on waste corn. Please use your car as a blind and never walk down to the pond as doing so will flush all of the birds who have come to use the sanctuary.
Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers, and Maddie Dumas, Land Steward, Goose Pond Sanctuary - firstname.lastname@example.org