|Snow Geese habitat
growth raises population
By Jay V.
Folks out in the Piney Woods in the winter are no strangers to yelping dogs associated with rural farms and homes or packs of hounds. But, when the yelping comes from above, it's time to look up. Sometimes the source is close to the ground and other times it may be several thousand feet up. In any event, loose strings and V-ees of geese are the source of the yelping.
Our most abundant goose is the Snow Goose and the species most likely to be flying over pine forests traveling about the region's river bottoms and agricultural fields. The term "snow" implies that the Snow Goose is white. Well, many Snow Geese are white but there are two color morphs in the species. The most common form is snow white with black wing tips. The other form has a white head, brown body and blue-brown wings. The adult bluish morph, once called Blue Goose, is sometimes referred to as an "Eagle Head".
As recently as the 1970s, the two morphs of Snow Goose were considered to be separate species. It is now known that the two morphs readily interbreed and a careful inspection of a large flock of geese in a field will reveal intergrades.
Snow Goose flocks can number as many as 20,000 or more individuals. It is quite a phenomenon to come upon such a large, yelping flock as it flushes into the sky.
Over the past 50 years, a change in our agricultural landscape has resulted in redistribution of Snow Geese well inland from their traditional wintering grounds along the northern Gulf Coast and adjacent working wetlands. Clearing of forested wetlands along the major river valleys has provided ideal habitat for wintering Snow Geese.
After Snow Geese, our most common goose is the Greater White-fronted Goose, called "speckle bellies" after their mottled, speckled bellies. The two species are easily distinguished not only by color but by size with the specks being more robust birds. The Canada Goose is present in our region but most are found in local, breeding flocks established decades ago in a futile attempt to encourage migratory flocks to come to come to the Gulf Coast rather than short-stopping in the central Mississippi River Valley.
The Snow Goose is a "gumbo" goose. The species is a rangy bird with tough meat that requires slow cooking. By contrast, both the Greater White-fronted Goose and the Canada Goose are better table fare.
Snow Goose populations have exploded over recent decades because of the increase in wintering habitat. This has caused conservation concerns about breeding grounds in northern Canada along Hudson's Bay. Foraging geese grub for roots in the fragile tundra where it takes years for grubbed areas to recover. Some feel that the damage done to the tundra has to be countered by reduction in Snow Goose numbers. Others disagree. However, wildlife managers have established special, no-limit Snow Goose seasons for hunting splits between regular waterfowl seasons and following the regular season until the geese depart our region in March.
When you happen upon a flock of Snow Geese, you can often get very close if you remain in your vehicle. You might see some Mallard-sized individuals with small bills and black "grinning" patches. This is the Ross's Goose. And, if you see a similar sized Canada Goose, you have happened upon the so-called Cackling Goose. So, the goose identification situation in our region isn't all that cut and dried!
Jay V. Huner