Anatidae -2 Geese

This is the second in a series of three looking at the Anatidae family of birds following Anatidae -1 Ducks. In this article it is the geese that are under review. geese belong to the Genus Anser which is a well known genus and the birds are usually arranged between the ducks and swans.

The genus name comes from anser meaning goose. considered as a genus they are perhaps the least aquatic of the family and feed more upon vegetable substances. 

Photograph courtesy of Robert Pos.


Geese are very numerous and are most abundant in the Polar countries and much more abundant in those regions of the northern hemisphere than the southern. geese are all, with a very few exceptions, completely web footed, and they can all swim. However, as previously stated the are the least aquatic of this family of birds. 

If the structure of the goose, and the way in which the legs support the body, are compared with ducks, especially the ones of diving ducks, which range farther upon the waters, and are more constantly there than the common ducks, we will see a very remarkable difference in the purpose for which they are best adapted. The legs of such ducks are evidently formed for getting through water rapidly with very little effort. Their legs too, are placed well back, so as to strike against the water, which follows in their wake, and gives great advantage to the stroke, much more so than if they were placed further forward  along the body. They also have the ability to throw the foot some distance from the body and partially turn it in such a manner as to bring it forward again with least resistance, thus, they are, strictly speaking., a swimming bird.

The goose on the other hand is properly a walking bird, although they can swim and the two powers are nearly equal in some species, and there may be some species in which swimming predominates. 

Geese are much more exclusively vegetable feeders than the rest of the family, at least with the exception of the swans, and the swans are much more aquatic feeders than geese are, for which habit they are well adapted with their greater length of neck. Geese never dive, nor do they, in many instances feed below the surface of the water, though they often feed, while swimming, on the seeds and succulent leaves of aquatic plants. 


The general characters of geese.

Geese are generally speaking polygamous { mating with more than one partner} but there is hardly any visible distinction between males and females. The adult males are indeed rather larger than the females, but before they reach maturity the two sexes are very much alike, both in size and colour, and in many species the colouring is different from the colouring of adult birds.

The natural habitats of geese are the damp meadows and those tufted marshes which abound with plants and they tend to shun clear waters with pebbly shores. Because of the nature of their feeding habits and habitat geese are in the main migratory birds.

In winter the land vegetation is covered in snow  in every part of the northern regions and this covering of snow usually extends to the shallow pools, and those tufty vegetations which supply geese with food before winter sets in. There is therefore nothing  for the geese to feed on in the parts of those regions where they breed during times of plenty and where they then occur in great numbers.

And as geese are incapable of obtaining food from the sea they must fly south to where food is available. Their flight is high which affords them the ability to scan the whole of the horizon on their passage. 

The Greylag Goose--Anser anser

Nearly all our domestic geese can be traced back to the greylag goose { formerly known simply as the common wild goose}. The size varies a great deal but the average size is two and a half feet or more in length, with a wingspan of five to five and a half feet.[1.49-1.68 metres ] and they weigh between 2.9 and 3.7kg { six and a half-to eight and a quarter pounds }.

Greylag geese fly in flocks containing about 50-100 individuals and fly at a considerable height and rarely descend during the day to rest, unless a plentiful supply of food is available.  Their peculiar cry can often be heard during the day, when they themselves are either entirely out of sight, or so elevated they look like specks in the sky.

Geese flying high

photograph by Dal

However, when they do come down to earth they are reasonably silent, and , they feed chiefly during the night, this contrary to the habits of the geese that are resident here. there is a considerable difference in the habit of geese that land merely to rest, which they do at certain stop overs, than when they alight for wintering or for a more prolonged stay. In the latter case they observe no particular order but spread themselves  over the pasture, whereas the former, they always come down in a line and have a watchman or commander which remains a little detached from the rest.

After they have rested for 2-3 hours, the commander utters a single cry, and as soon as this cry is given they are all on the wing and resume the order of their aerial formation. In his book The Cylcopedia of British Natural History {1837}, Partington describes the flight of greylag geese as follows---" their flight is conducted with great regularity, for they always proceed either in a line abreast, or in two lines joining in an angle in the middle. They take their lead in this order by turns, generally, the foremost falls back to the rear when tired with cleaving the air, and the next in succession takes its place"

Their principle diet consists of aquatic vegetation, vegetables and all sorts of grain. When domesticated and at ease greylag geese grow much bigger than they ever could in the wild. geese in their domesticated state get attached to humans and other farm animals such as cows and horses. 

Grey Lag.

Courtesy of Donald Hobern {Denmark} CC BY-SA 2.0 License

Conservation issues

Greylag geese are on the Amber list of Conservation Concern because of localised non-breeding populations and Important non-breeding populations. It has been on the Amber list since 1996. However, they seem to be on the increase in Britain and in some regions they are more common than the Canada goose.

In Britain the estimated number is 3,200 pairs in summer. 

Europe they are not a species of concern.

Information  courtesy of the BTO. 

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