Cackling Goose -- Canada Goose Subspecies Identification Indicators


by Harry Krueger

Cackling Goose
Cackling Goose, B. h. minima.
Photo © 2004 Gabor Papp
October 2004, Ann Morrison Memorial Park, Boise, Idaho

Small geese are always Cackling Goose and larger geese are always Canada Goose, right? Wrong. If relying on size alone as the differentiating factor in identifying these two possibilities, misidentifications are sure to be made. Fortunately geese are social creatures and comparison to others is sometimes useful, although far from definitive because of the overlap between subspecies and now even species (size ranges from a large 15-20 lbs. in maxima to Mallard size birds of about 3 lbs. in some minima). Making such a tricky id based on any lone bird is more than risky. Understand that field identification of these two species is based on previous work done on the recognized eleven subspecies of the former Canada Goose, none of which is very complete, often resulting in pointed disagreements among "experts."

Because of intergrades, human assisted transplants, changing environmental factors, and a still developing understanding of each of these races and their interactions with each other, it will often be impossible for even the most skilled and well informed field observer to identify each goose they encounter. In fact, many may just be comfortably, and most reasonably, lumped into a catch-all category of "White-cheeked Goose." Hopefully this article will at least lessen the number of generic "white-cheeked" geese tallied in the field and prevent some level of confusion and/or misidentification.

Formerly there were 11 recognized subspecies of Canada Goose (Sibley pictures 6, National Geographic pictures 5). Cackling Goose includes the subspecies hutchinsii, asiatica (probably extinct), leucopareia, taverneri, and minima. If you're looking at Sibley this includes his Aleutian, Cackling, Richardson's, and Lesser (this subspecies was split between the two species, with part to Cackling). Canada Goose now includes the subspecies canadensis, interior, maxima, moffitti, parvipes, fulva, and occidentalis. In Sibley's that's Dusky, Common, Lesser (subspecies split, with part to Canada) and the nominate Canada (or "Atlantic" in NGS). Making things more interesting for field identification is the fact that there is a complete overlap in size between the two new species, with taverneri (Cackling) and parvipes (Canada), both divisions of "Lesser," almost equal in size.

Note: Identifying Cackling and Canada Goose by size alone, which many are prone to do, is a risky proposition for all races but the very small Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii minima. This is not what we have chosen to call a "primary indicator," or a field mark or characteristic that gives the observer a unique indication of the identification of a specific species or subspecies. For example throughout the "white-cheeked" goose complex we believe that bill and head size and shape relationship is generally a primary indicator, whereas size and/or plumage is usually a secondary indicator, or field mark or characteristic, while perhaps very helpful in discerning the identity of a species or subspecies in association with a primary indicator, often does not by itself provide the surety of id desired by most observers. The terms primary indicator and secondary indicator are used throughout this article.

Following is a summary of secondary size and plumage indicators for the various subspecies of Canada and Cackling Goose (Stackhouse 2004) that may be helpful in beginning to get a firmer grip on this emerging id challenge. See the "Detailed Guide to 'White-cheeked' Geese Subspecies" (work in progress) for more specific particulars.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

canadensis B. c. canadensis (sometimes called "Atlantic" Canada Goose) -- This is a large goose, averaging about 7.5 to 9 lbs., lightest in color, long neck, sometimes showing a whitish collar, a strong contrast between the breast and the black of the neck. This is the common subspecies of eastern North America.
B.c. interior B. c. interior (sometimes called "Todd's" Canada Goose) -- Similar in size to canadensis, about 7.5 to 9.5 lbs.; somewhat browner and darker, contrasting less with black of neck; long neck, and seldom with a white collar. Breeds mostly in eastern and central Canada, winters in the east and Midwest.
B. c. maxima (sometimes called "Giant" Canada Goose) -- This is a very large goose, about 14 to 15 lbs.; rather pale overall, especially on the underparts; white on cheeks extends somewhat farther up on sides of head than in canadensis. The neck is very long, it rarely has a white collar, and the bill is very large. This subspecies is found mostly along the Mississippi Flyway.
B.c. moffitti icon B. c. moffitti (sometimes called "Moffitt's" Canada Goose) -- This subspecies is only slightly smaller than maxima, about 8 to 14 lbs.; and is similar in general coloration; may have white markings on forehead and, in intermountain birds, a dark chin strap. It is long-necked, and often has a whitish collar. This is the common subspecies of the west.
Parvipes icon B. c. parvipes (sometimes called "Lesser" Canada Goose) -- This is a medium-sized goose, about 5 to 6 lbs.; the same size as the largest subspecies of Cackling Goose, or about the same size as a Snow Goose. It is similar in overall shape and color to moffitti, with a pale to dusky breast. Breeds in Alaska, with winter records for Washington. Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.
  B. c. occidentalis (sometimes called "Dusky" Canada Goose) -- This subspecies is medium to large, about 8 to 10 lbs.; generally dark overall; underparts chestnut to dark chocolate brown; seldom with a partial white neck collar. Breeds in Alaska; winters in Washington, Oregon and possibly isolated birds in Idaho.
  B. c. fulva (sometimes called "Vancouver" Canada Goose) -- Similar but slightly larger than occidentalis about 6 to 13 lbs, has a relatively small bill. Breeds in western Canada; winters in coastal British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)

hutchinsii icon B. h. hutchinsii (sometimes called "Richardson's" Cackling Goose or "Hutchin's" Cackling Goose) -- This subspecies is small in size, about 3 to 7 lbs., and light colored, with pale breast; bill appears stubby; white on cheeks usually continuous across chin; short neck; seldom has a white collar as in leucopareia and minima. Breeds widely on the arctic tundra; winters mostly in Texas and Mexico. Probably a migrant through especially eastern Idaho.
  B. h. taverneri (sometimes called "Taverner's" Cackling Goose or "Lesser" Cackling Goose) -- Similar in size to parvipes of Canada Goose, about 4.5 to 6 lbs.; similar in coloration to leucopareia, but lighter (though a bit darker than parvipes) and usually without a neck ring. Breeds in Alaska; winters in Washington and Oregon, and to a very limited extent in Idaho.
B.c. minima B. h. minima (sometimes just called "Cackling Goose") -- This is the smallest of the subspecies, about 3 to 4 lbs.; with small bill and short neck, appearing somewhat long-legged; highly variable in color but typically overall quite dark; a few show white collar; no dark chin strap; also has a distinctive, cackling call. Breeds mostly in western Alaska; winters in central California, also in Oregon, Washington, and is very uncommon in fall-winter in Idaho.
  B. h. leucopareia (sometimes called "Aleutian" Cackling Goose) -- This subspecies is larger than minima, about 4.5 to 5.5 lbs.; with paler breast (but still one of the darker subspecies); usually complete and thick white collar at the base of the neck; neck and bill short, nearly always with black chin strap. Breeds on the Aleutian Islands; winters mostly in California.

Icon photo credits: canadensis: Angus Wilson; interior: David Roemer;moffitti: Harry Krueger; parvipes: Stuart MacKay; hutchinsii: Harry Krueger; minima: Gabor Papp

WHITE-CHEEKED GOOSE: [Introduction] [Subspecies Accounts] [Descriptive Comparisons] [Additional Photos] [References]

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