Cackling Geese

Everyone that has visited Goose Pond during the spring migration has probably seen cackling geese, however they may not have recognized them.

Photo by Jim Culp, Creative Commons

Photo by Jim Culp, Creative Commons

These geese are noisy and their call is a loud honking or a high-pitched, squeaking cackle from which they received their common name.

The cackling goose was originally considered to be the same species or a subspecies of the Canada goose, but in July 2004 the American Ornithologists' Union's (AOU) Committee on Classification and Nomenclature split the two into two species, making cackling goose into a full species with the scientific name Branta hutchinsii.  The AOU Committee then split cackling geese into four subspecies.  We believe the cackling geese at Goose Pond are the Richardson's cackling goose (B. h. hutchinsii) subspecies. Do not be frustrated by not being able to identify all the geese you see! Harold Hanson, the world’s goose expert, suggests splitting Canada and cackling goose into six species and 200 subspecies.

Cackling geese are a smaller version of the Canada goose. The smallest form of the cackling goose is only a quarter the size (3.1 pounds) of the "giant Canada goose" subspecies. However, subspecies found at Goose Pond can be up to 6.6 lb and grows to the same size as some Canada geese.  

Actual and proportional bill length may be the single most useful feature to study when trying to identify Canada and cackling Geese. In general the smaller subspecies have shorter, stubbier, proportionally smaller bills, while the larger subspecies have longer, proportionally larger bills. Unfortunately there seems to be overlap between the smaller populations of Canada goose and larger subspecies of Cackling goose.

On the first day of spring, Daryl Tessen, one of Wisconsin’s top bird watchers, counted 150 cackling geese at Goose Pond Sanctuary! Goose numbers this spring have numbered around 3,000 so about 5% of the geese at Goose Pond are cackling geese. The geese will probably be around for another 10 days before heading north. Cackling geese breeds farther northward and westward than does the Canada goose.  We hope you get a chance to check out these difficult to indentify birds.

By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary