8 The Honkers of Canada

Four days. That’s how long it would take a Canada Goose to travel around the world. This unofficial symbol of Canada can be found in the millions – on Canada’s meadows, on its ponds, on its lakes, and in its parks. It can even be found in the desolate tundra of the Arctic. During the winter, most Canada Geese migrate south to warmer weather and so are found in other parts of North America as well, particularly in the southern United States and northern Mexico. But what makes this bird, of all the birds in Canada, so special?

Firstly, the Canada Goose has a very unique appearance. Its black elongated neck, black head, and white cheeks are probably its most striking features. Within its eleven subspecies, the weight and size can vary from a meagre 1.1 kg to a whopping 8 kg (Canadian Geographic, 2006). In fact, the biggest goose ever recorded in Canada was a Giant Canada Goose of 26 lbs. killed in Manitoba back in 1911 (Robinson, 1980). This is heavier than the average Canadian lynx. And its eyes are special as well. Unlike any other birds, the Canada Goose’s enormous round eyes have adapted to view the world at an angle, presumably allowing it to see both the sky and ground at the same time (Moore et al., 2012).

The Canada Goose is also a highly intelligent social being. Surprisingly, most are monogamous, mating for life like many humans (Canadian Geographic, 2006). They also return to their natal land to raise their own goslings, of which there are 20 to 100 in any given group at one time (Soniak, 2016). These groups, according to Soniak (2016) are more like human gangs than families, with gang membership often mandatory rather than voluntary. In fact, the head geese are known for their aggressive attacks on weaker parents in a bid to grow their own brood. These mafia groups are beneficial though for the most part. This is evidenced by their care for the sick and elderly amongst them. For example, if – during migration – a goose falters due to ill health or injury, others will land with it to help care for it (Muna & Mansour, 2005).

More interestingly though, the Canada Goose has an advanced system of communication. Unlike most birds, the Canada Goose has up to thirteen different calls, ranging from honks and hisses to short grunts (Whitford, 1998). The honk call, for which the Canada Goose is best known, is deep and deafening –  and usually used for protection or for long distance communication (Whitford, 1998). Hisses, on the other hand, are used when threatening creatures are close by. The grunting noises are produced to communicate with the young or with their mates when nearby. This communication even applies to goslings still in the egg who are able to answer their parents’ calls with small peeps – an extraordinary feat that humans have not managed to achieve (Wurdinger, 1970; Cowan, 2011).

In light of the Canada Goose’s striking appearance, social intelligence, and varied vocalizations, it holds a special place in the hearts of Canadians. Although not loved by all (due to its loud honks, aggressive territorial stances, and sheer numbers), it remains a steadfast symbol of Canada whose overall values –  those of life-time commitments, family,  and care for the sick and elderly– are remarkably similar to our own. In the words of author Barbara Klide, if you “should you hear the geese calling, drink it in, knowing you have been touched with [their] indescribable magnificence…”. Magnificence indeed.



Canadian Geographic (2006). Animal facts: Canada Goose. Retrieved January 25, 2020 from https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/animal-facts-canada-goose

Cowan, P. (2011). Parental calls and approach behavior of young Canada Geese: A laboratory study.  Canadian Journal of Zoology, 51(6), 647-650.

Moore, B., Baumhardt, P., Doppler, M., Randolet, J., Blackwell, B., DeVault, T., Loew, E., & Fernández-Juricic, E. (2012). Oblique color vision in an open-habitat bird: spectral sensitivity, photoreceptor distribution and behavioral implications. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215, 3442-3452.

Muna, F. & Mansour, N. (2005). Leadership lessons from Canada Geese. Team Performance Management, 11(7/8), 316-326. https://doi.org/10.1108/13527590510635189

Robinson, J. (1980). The best of Jimmy Robinson. Detroit Lakes, Minnesota: John R. Meyer.

Soniak, M. (2016). Six honking facts about Canada Geese. Retrieved January 27, 2020 from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/80243/6-honking-facts-about-canada-geese

Whitford, P. (1998). Vocal and visual communication of Giant Canada Geese. In D.H. Rusch, M. D. Samuel, D.D. Humburg, & B.D. Sullivan (Eds.), Biology and management of Canada Geese (pp. 375-386). Milwaukee, WI: International Canada Goose Symposium.

Wurdinger, I. (1970). Production, development and function of four goose species (Anser indicusA. caerulescensA. albifrons, and Branta canadensis). Z. Tierpsychol., 27(3), 257-302.


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