Thursday, October 15, 2009

Goose Music

Nature Watch
By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Goose Music

Almost daily it occurred this past week – the honk of a flight of geese in their migration flight, their voices in constant contact—what Aldo Leopold called “goose music.” Most flocks can number thirty to one hundred birds as they travel up to forty miles per hour at an altitude of 2,000 up to 30,000 feet. It is a sight everyone is used to seeing across the country and is a sound almost everyone knows. Canada geese are amazing birds that have been studied by scientists for many years.

Historically, it was a shock to many scientists to discover that many species migrated. Some naturalists felt it was impossible for tiny birds to fly so far without help. They conceived the idea that larger species, such as cranes, storks and geese, would carry these smaller birds as “living freight.” Some Native American tribes in the Western Hemisphere held beliefs that hummingbirds would ride on the backs of geese. Today, scientific study has taught us much about Canada geese and their success in migration.

Preparation for migration begins from the moment Canada geese hatch. Adult males begin molting right after mating, and the females begin five weeks after the goslings hatch. The adults re-grow their flight feathers and are ready to fly at about the same time as the goslings are able to learn - at nine weeks old. The parents teach them to fly, usually running along the surface of the water or ground for takeoff. As soon as the young are strong enough for the trip, the family begins their migration south. The young learn the migration routes from their parents and follow the same route in future years. Then the familiar v-shaped formation flight pattern begins.

Why do geese fly in a v-formation? Because it is hard to fly in an s-shape. Just kidding. In reality, the v-shape requires less energy, allowing the geese to fly longer distances. By flying slightly above the bird in front of them, there is a reduction in wind resistance. Geese can use fifty to seventy percent less energy due to the lead bird’s updraft. They can also travel at least seventy percent further than when flying alone. The larger, stronger birds are usually the leader. The lead birds rotate in a timely fashion to keep fatigue from occurring among the flight members. While flying in the v-formation, they can also communicate easier, and keep visual contact with each other.

Why are geese so loud when honking while in flight? It is believed that they are “cheerleading,” encouraging the leaders to keep up the good leadership, and to keep going! When they do travel, Canada geese stay in family groups. When ready to feed and rest, they land in familiar marshes or fields. When a large flock of geese comes in for a landing, family units “peel” off in smaller groups before they land. The next morning the arduous flight to central or southern United States continues.

It is amazing that geese, or any birds, continue to make the migration south with all the challenges they can face. When cloudy, birds may fly closer to the ground. They can have troubles with exhaustion from long flight with not enough rest. Bad weather such as snowstorms, thick fog, or strong winds can impact their success. Starvation from not enough food can occur. They can also fly into human obstructions or be shot by hunters. As we wish for their success in the coming days, we can continue to enjoy their goose music and flight overhead, soon to be a sound that will disappear until spring.

For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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