Lesser snow goose (Anser caerulescens)
Honk! This week Crawlies engages in some more foul play! Once again, in honor of your Thanksgiving table, let’s meet another Turkey Day dinner option (also, once again – don’t tell the geese!) Meet the lesser snow goose (Anser caerulescens).
Before we delve into the life and times of the lesser snow goose, let’s get to brass tacks and discuss the best places to see massive flocks as pictured below. Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge should be chock full of these snowies from January through March; make your travel plans accordingly (plan for one of those “unseasonably warm” days!) Summer Lake is another snowy hot spot, but a bit more of a drive.
First fun fact: Snow geese are typically, well, snowy white. However, they do come in a blue morph as well. You may spot some blues mixed in with any flock of snow geese.
The blue morph (ok, really, it’s more black than blue) is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partially dominant over white.
If a pure dark goose mates with a white goose, the goslings will all be dark (possibly with white bellies). If two white geese mate, white goslings. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark offspring, but might have a few white ones too.
Yup, reread that! Blue + white = blue; white + white = white; blue + blue = blue or white. Mixing genes is NOT like mixing paint colors on a palette!
Keeping on the topic of color – some snow geese have rust-colored faces; some even have entirely rust-colored heads. While the reason for this is still “science!” this time it’s dietary, not genetics.
Essentially rusty feathers on snow geese are hard water stains. Snow geese forage in some soils with high iron content and receive a free dye-job along with their meals.
In areas like Lower Klamath, you’ll spot snow geese on the water during the day. They are herbivores, with serrated bills especially adapted for grubbing. They grub around in tidal and brackish marshes, shallow freshwater wetlands and sedge meadows.
At sunset they’ll fly off en masse to local fields for supper and sleep as they’ve adapted to make use of agricultural fields found around their overwintering spots.
In spring snow geese fly all the way to the Arctic to breed. They form monogamous pairs and scout out a good nesting spot together. Then the female takes over building the nest by herself. She starts by just scraping the ground, forming a nest anywhere between three and six feet in diameter.
As she lays her eggs, she begins lining the nest, first with her own downy feathers plucked from her chest, then with sea-lyme grass, eelgrass, leaves and twigs of willow and birch or seaweed.
Once they begin incubating the eggs, females rarely leave the nest. They’ll forage up to 18 hours per day in the days before nesting to build up a good fat reserve.
Snowy goslings are tough little critters! They are well developed when they hatch and within three weeks of hatching, they may walk up to 50 miles with their parents to an area more suited to raising goslings than nesting.
Not only are snow geese excellent flyers, but they can run very fast as well. So fast, they can outrun many predators when they are in their molt phase and unable to fly.
Final fun fact: While snow goose hybrids aren’t as common as mallard hybrids, they do happen. See the pictured snow goose X Canada goose hybrid above.