From ginormous Giants to mallard-sized cacklers, Canada Goose subspecies express tremendous size and color variability. Ever wondered why? Once lumped as 11 subspecies, they’re now classified as 7 Canada Goose subspecies and 4 Cackler Goose subspecies–but it was once proposed that there be 200 subspecies! Confused? Don’t be. Jim Leafloor is Head of Aquatic Unit for Environment and Climate Change Canada. A recognized authority, Leafloor’s spent a considerable portion of his extensive career researching Canada geese and throws a million candle-power spotlight on the otherwise murky subject of Canada goose subspecies. We do a deep dive and you’re bound to learn a thing or 3 about North America’s most iconic goose.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, don’t let the name fool you, today’s episode is about Canada geese and I bet you’re going to learn something today, you did not know about Canada geese. Joining us is Mr. Jim Leafloor, Head of Aquatic unit, Environment and Climate Change, Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service. Jim, thanks for joining me today. You’re kind of a go to guy for Canada geese, last time I met with you, you were telling me all about Canada Geese.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. They’ve been part of my career, part of my interest for probably 30 years or more.
Ramsey Russell: As both a biologist and a hunter.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I did my PhD research on Canada geese, my first job, my first permanent job in Northern Ontario was monitoring of Canada geese in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
Ramsey Russell: Way back when, when I was in college, there were 11 subspecies of Canada geese, now there’s 7 subspecies of Canada geese and 4 subspecies of cacklers, same subspecies, but they’ve grouped them up differently, what’s up with that?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. In 2004, the American ornithologist union recognized cackling geese as a separate species from Canada geese, we once considered all of these white cheek geese to belong to the same species. They’re highly variable in size, so the smallest of the cackling geese maybe the size of a mallard, maybe a little bigger, all the way up to the residents or the temperate nesting Canada geese that we see all over Southern Canada and the US, birds that are 10lbs plus very big birds. So I’ve been fascinated in over about the variation that group of birds displays in terms of their size and shape and color and that was the subject of my research when I was doing my own PhD.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s what’s always amazed me is how you’ve got a true cackler, the size of about a big mallard drake to these ginormous giants and all these little colors and sizes in between, but I mean, at a glance, they all look like little Canada geese. Little Canada geese, big Canada geese, I call them big, middles and littles. Why is there so much size and color variability?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think, if you look at cackling geese, which are the small ones and Canada geese that takes care of a lot of the size variation right there, cackling geese tend to be smaller, they’re the Arctic nesting birds and the theory is that they’re smaller in size because they’re adapted to an arctic environment. So they have a shorter growing season, they don’t have time essentially to grow to the same size as the birds that we see in the southern portions of the range. Whereas, Canada geese have a great deal of flexibility, but also much longer growing seasons and that reflects in their body size. So in both species, we see geographic variation in size they tend to be the largest in the southern portions of the range and then as you move northward on the nesting areas, they get smaller and smaller. So the Canada geese are all large bodied birds, but the geese that we see nesting in Northern Manitoba for example, are considerably smaller than those that we see nesting in Southern Canada or across the United States.
Ramsey Russell: Been a long time since I took wildlife, but I still remember one of the concepts I had to learn about Bergmann’s rule and I’ve been told it unapplied to birds, but the Bergmann’s rule says that the further an altitude you go and the further north you go, the bigger something gets, the function of surface area and conserving heat. But you’re just explain that the littlest Canada goose is the furthest north and the biggest Canada goose further south or are we looking at it? What would happen if you did it in the winter?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I mean, an interesting paper was published many years ago in late 1960s Dennis Rravelling and a co-author published a paper that suggested that geese follow Bergman’s rule in reverse, and that during the winter months, the largest of the geese, those temperate nesting Canada geese, the giants are the ones that winter the farthest north and the smallest birds are the ones that winter the farther south. So in that sense, they do conform to Bergman’s rule only they do so in the winter, not in the nesting season.
Ramsey Russell: I see. Now, I’m a going to take off something to a different direction. Talk about giants and lessers.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. My favorite topic.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about giants first because that might be less – my understanding and I learned this from a friend down in Minnesota is that at one time, giant Canada geese, which are probably the most proliferate on the North American continent right now were thought to be extinct and they originated somewhere in Manitoba and migrated as far south as Rochester, Minnesota and somebody discovered them, found them and began to captive breed them and put them in places.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Canada geese in the 1950s these giant Canada geese were thought to be extinct, this was the largest of the subspecies, Canada geese that we recognize today and at one time, they probably nested across Southern Canada and parts of the US at least. But with the onset of civilization pioneering that went on in the early history of North America, these are one of the groups of birds that was likely overharvested and those giants disappeared from across the landscape. And the truth is they never disappeared entirely, but I guess there was no record or not we weren’t keeping as close to tabs on them back then as we do now and there were very few of them. But in 1963, a guy named Harold Hansen rediscovered the giant Canada goose, he discovered a group of birds that were nesting around Delta Marsh in Manitoba and migrating to Rochester, Minnesota. And when he captured, I don’t remember how he sampled these birds or captured them or shot some of them for a sample, he found out that these were extremely large birds that conform to this race that was thought to be extinct, these giant Canada geese. And that kind of kicked off a long period of time where a lot of effort went into restoring those geese to their former range. And there were still a lot of Canada geese at that time were being held in captivity, historically, some of these geese were probably used for decoys, when live decoys were still legal up to about 1935. But some of them were still available in captivity and they used some of these captive flocks for a source of eggs to hatch out and then raise those goslings partway and then establish them by planting them essentially across portions of the former range. And at the same time, they were doing that, they were reintroducing these Canada geese, the hunting seasons were heavily restricted around where those birds were being released to give them a chance to establish and go off and breed on their own and hopefully build back these populations. And now 60 years later, we have more Canada geese probably than we’ve ever had and populations continue to grow in many areas. So currently one of the most abundant geese we have in North America.
The Enigma of Non-Migratory Giants: Canada Geese Defying Traditional Migration
I think there are very few populations of Canada geese that don’t migrate, first of all. We may call them resident Canada geese, but all of them move eventually
Ramsey Russell: Just a thought I had, why don’t those birds migrate? I mean, they took some of those captives of the rediscovered giants and placed them places like New York and elsewhere up north. How come they don’t – And I’ve wondering why don’t they migrate? Is it because they were captive reared and put somewhere or do you think – it just occurred to me, if this race of Canada geese historically went from somewhere in Manitoba to Rochester, Minnesota which gets a whole lot of snow and hard winter, that’s as far as they need to go. But it doesn’t it seems like they migrate. You got any thoughts on that?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think there are very few populations of Canada geese that don’t migrate, first of all. We may call them resident Canada geese, but all of them move eventually. I mean, the severity of the winters we have in Southern Canada, forces them to move eventually and the same is true across the US. So most of those populations are not completely sedentary, they’re not really resident populations and we also see the phenomenon of moult migration, where a lot of the non-breeding birds in a given area or state, for example, will leave in usually in late May, early June and fly northward and these birds often are headed to the arctic. But also a lot of sub-arctic areas where they spend the summer and moult their feathers. And then once the moult is over and into the fall September and October, they’re actually part of the southward migration that we see. So with the Canada goose numbers that we have today in southern portions of the range, the moult migration has become so large that there are probably at least as many moult migrant Canada geese migrating southward in the fall as there are subarctic geese for example.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy.
Jim Leafloor: Hundreds of thousands of them.
Ramsey Russell: What about the color variability? Like, here’s what I’m thinking is out west taverners, not quite as far away, but way out west, dusky’s versus the Churchill over here on this side. There’s dark variability and by the same token, you’ve got Atlantic brant which are gray bellies and Pacific brant, which are dark. Why the disparity, why the difference in colors?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I don’t know that the brant question is quite the same as it is in Canada geese, but for Canada geese, there is a lot of variation in color and it tends to be structured. So there’s a geographic component to the variation that we see in color. In the southern portions of the range, we tend to have larger paler Canada geese and the only exception to that tends to be on the West Coast where we tend to have darker birds. So some of the subspecies, the dusky Canada goose, very dark birds, Vancouver tend to be dark, taverners, whereas birds farther west tend to be lighter. But the real question about that is, how much of that color variation is genetic versus environmental, we don’t really have a good handle on that. But I do know, when I was working with captive Canada geese, for example, growing them in captivity and measuring their growth rates, I had birds that were collected in James Bay as eggs and raised in captivity even fed purina duck chow and those birds grew to be about as dark as any Canada goose I’ve ever seen.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Jim Leafloor: Which tells me that the environment or the food of the bird has a lot to do with the darkness or the lightness.
Ramsey Russell: So when you fed those James Bay birds, which are big birds, typically out east here, grayer bellies, when you fed them that particular diet, they got darker as dark as any of the races of Canada geese.
Jim Leafloor: Much darker than what we see normally in James Bay. But those geese were part of an experiment and this is related to the variation that we see in Canada geese in terms of their size and shape and color. When I worked in Northern Ontario, we had Canada geese that nested on a Akimiski Island in James Bay, they were part of the Southern James Bay goose population and there were also birds that nested on the mainland of James Bay, they all belong to the same population, when we banded birds from those two places, they all migrated to the same areas, they were all one group of birds. But the interesting thing was that the geese on the island were much smaller than the birds on the mainland, there was some overlap in size but the birds on the mainland were probably 15% to 20% larger than the birds on the island. So I was interested in what causes those differences. So, yeah, I did an experiment to try and figure out why the geese on Akimiski Island and the mainland were much different in size and to do that, we collected eggs from nests on the island and nests from eggs on the mainland and we hatched them out and we raised them in captivity in a common environment. So what we are trying to do is figure out, are the differences in size between Akimiski Island and the adjacent mainland due to genetic differences or is there something in the environment that causes the geese on the island to be smaller? So we raise them in a common environment, we gave them the same food and we gave them liberal access to the food, there were no restrictions on how much they could eat. So as the goslings developed, we were measuring them every 2 or 3 days to chart their growth and figure out how large they were going to be ultimately. We raised them for a few months and those birds all turned out to be the same size, we found no differences between the goslings that came from the mainland and the goslings that came from the island. So what that told us was that the geese on the Akimiski Island are smaller, not because of their genetics, but because of something in the environment and it turned out that something was probably the food supply. So there was a lot more food available per capita, per goose on the mainland, which allowed them to grow larger than, there was on the Akimiski Island.
Ramsey Russell: And getting back to the coloration to just kind of the way you describe coloration is something environmental, it almost reminds me of flamingos that when they’re eating a lot of creole shrimp or something, they get real red, when they’re on a different diet, they get pale. So there’s probably just something out in that western diet similar to Purina duck chow.
Jim Leafloor: Yes. Some environmental effects may be as a result of the food they’re eating, but also things like iron content, for example, things in the environment that can cause their feathers to appear to be darker and I’m pretty sure there have been studies that have shown that the western subspecies of Canada geese tend to have higher iron content in their food.
Ramsey Russell: That makes sense.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. So ultimately, the variation in color, even though historically that was used to as one of the characteristics that we use to tell the difference between different subspecies, it may not be a reliable indicator because it’s not genetically based.
Ramsey Russell: Now, talk about “lesser”. What is a lesser? Because to a lot of our listeners, there’s only two geese, greaters and lessers.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Not giants, but greater.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And none of them are Canadas, but to most people, it’s Canadians. But go ahead. What is a lesser?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I’ll start by saying that there are two species of white geese, the cackling geese are the small ones that nest in the arctic, the Canada geese are the large ones that nest mostly south of the arctic, there’s occasional nestings in the Arctic, but by and large you don’t find a lot of Canada geese in the Arctic and by and large, you don’t find a lot of cackling geese nesting in areas south of the Arctic. So there’s relatively little overlap. Among each of those groups of birds, we split them into various subspecies and the lesser Canada goose that you mentioned, a lot of people in my experience, I’ve run into people who call cackling geese lesser Canada geese, but in fact, the lesser Canada goose is a recognized subspecies of Canada goose, but it’s much different than all of the other subspecies in just terms of its size. The lesser Canada goose is the only one that’s as small as a cackling goose and the only reason that it’s classified today as a can of goose is that a number of genetic studies have found that these birds have the mitochondrial DNA of a Canada goose. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother through the matrilineal line, so kind of like the surnames in our culture, you got your last name from your father and your children will carry your last name, the surname generally passed down through the father. Well mitochondrial DNA is much the same, it’s only passed down through the females of a pair. So when you find a small bodied bird, the size of a cackler with mitochondrial DNA from a Canada goose, it tells you that somewhere in that bird’s history, a Canada goose contributed DNA and made that very small cackler sized bird. So usually, we would see that situation when there’s been a hybridization event. So a cackling goose and a Canada goose paired up and had young that were viable and they survived in that Canada goose DNA continues to be passed down to these small geese in future generations. So it’s my theory that the lesser Canada goose, this one small subspecies of Canada goose is actually a hybrid, it doesn’t actually exist as a subspecies.
Ramsey Russell: There might only be 10 subspecies and the lesser might just be a hybrid mixed in with those 11.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I mean, the number of subspecies can vary tremendously depending on what expert is looking at them. I mean, there are a lot of different –
Ramsey Russell: Somebody proposed, not too long ago, there’d be 200 of species.
Harold Hansen’s Taxonomic Odyssey: Navigating Structured Variation in Canada Geese
Harold would have been known as a splitter and he saw a lot of variation that could be tied to a geographic location.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. So Harold Hansen, the guy we talked about previously who rediscovered the giant Canada goose in the early 1960s was interested in the amount of variation that he saw in Canada geese from all across North America and I guess in our business or in the taxonomy business, Harold would have been known as a splitter and he saw a lot of variation that could be tied to a geographic location. So for example, birds from this area tend to be this big and this dark and have these characteristics. And he was kind of an extreme example of a splitter, I guess, because he saw structured variation across the range that he thought was enough to justify calling them different subspecies. But that would have been very difficult thing to manage, the way we manage harvest, for example, if we had to keep track of every individual, 200 races of Canada geese, you couldn’t imagine what a complicated, not to mention expensive, monitoring system you would need.
Ramsey Russell: I’m not going to ask you why it’s important yet, how do I tell the difference in all these birds? And I know what a taverner looks like, I know I think what a giant looks like, when I’m hunting in Utah, in Montana, I know I’m shooting to western, I’m down at Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, I know what I’m shooting a Hutchinson. But how do you really, like kind of my reference and it’s antiquated Jim, is the old bell rope book with the maps and the charts and the flyaways and the charts, so I can break out my caliper and measure some stuff. But how should I approach breaking out these 11 races of Canada geese?
Jim Leafloor: Well, for the most part, I mean, my opinion on this might differ from some other people in the business, but the most important thing to know is that very small birds are cackling geese and the large ones are Canada geese and how we divide them up into various subspecies is for the most part, not all that important. In terms of harvest management at least, if there’s an open hunting season, then all the Canada geese are Canada geese and all the cackling geese are cackling geese regardless of what subspecies someone might call them. But I tell people, if you’re really serious about deciding, is this a cackler or this a Canada and you don’t want to turn into a geneticist to figure that out, then all you have to do is measure the length of the skull, so from the back of the head to the tip of the bill for probably I would say 99% percent of the cackling geese if they’re under about a 103 millimeters, that’s a cackling goose. And probably the biggest Canada goose I’ve ever measured had a skull length of about a 145 millimeters just under 6 inches, like just a fraction under 6 inches, so there’s a lot of variation there, but the important variation is between cackling geese and Canada geese and somewhere around a 103 millimeters, there’s very little overlap in size, you rarely get a Canada goose that small and you rarely get a cackling goose that big.
Ramsey Russell: I heard somebody describe Manitoba’s the land of giants and rivet bands, but it’s not all giant Canada geese. You all got a lot of giants but you got a lot of eastern prairie population with the locals called Churchills and then this morning we shot Hutchinson just had this thought. Did you say blue wing teal – I’m a back up and just lay out what I’m asking you, I feel like I got my finger on the pulse of the migration by the age distribution of the bag down Louisiana, Mississippi. If it’s all adult males, I’m at the spear tip, when I start seeing a lot of hatcher birds over 50%, I know I’m getting into the main push. I know a lot of these birds migrating on photo period, is that kind of the same way? Are those birds just taking longer to get here because they’re flying or do they have a different migration? Does that make sense the question, I’m asking?
Jim Leafloor: There’s a little bit of both. I mean, in some populations it’s a little more obvious. For example, in Sandhill cranes, we see early in the migration period, we tend to see all adult birds, so those tend to be the birds that are non-breeders, they’re ready to migrate slightly before those birds that are with young. And you see that in goose populations as well, you tend to see a higher proportion of adult birds early in the migration and then the young birds that are accompanied by adults come down later. I think that’s fairly common.
Ramsey Russell: Do you see a progression in species migration also? If I were to come to this part of Manitoba, am I going to see giants real early?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Churchill bird kind of midway, cacklers later, it’s going to be this the stream of –
Jim Leafloor: There will be some variation like that. I mean, the first birds that you’re going to be harvesting when the season opens here are the locals, the ones that nested in this area and maybe some of the very early migrants from the Churchill area. But then there’s going to be a period where migrating birds from further north are going to come through, that’s going to include moult migrants, those are birds that were originally possibly even from the United States, we get a lot of band recoveries here of Canada geese that were originally banded as young in the US, but they go north for this moult migration and they’re harvested as they come back south.
Ramsey Russell: Knowing their moult migrated, I’ve seen banded Canada from banded in Indiana, banded in Minnesota.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Lots from Nebraska, there’s Iowa from all over.
Ramsey Russell: Why is it important, I’m wanting to talk about the cacklers versus the Canadas, the different subspecies, but here’s what we’re getting at it is other than for bird nerds like me that want to collect all those 11 subspecies, why is it important? How do you lump them and what are the management implications for these birds? Like, I know earlier you were telling me something about the James Bay population that used to go as far south as Alabama?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. The way we manage Canada geese in North America is a little different than the way we manage other populations geese or at least we tend to manage them at a smaller scale. So we split them up into populations and this is kind of a – I would say, an historical artifact. Back in the 1950s, again, this biologist, Harold Hansen, wrote a paper where he was studying Jack Miner bands, he was actually one of the first people to use Jack Miner bands to track how birds were moving across the flyway. And him and another guy named Robert Smith published a paper in 1950 that described several different groups of Canada geese based on where they were during the breeding season and where they were subsequently in the winter. And he pieced this all together from band recovery data, these are one of the first analysis that tried to link breeding areas and wintering areas in Canada geese. And he found that there were some patterns, when you move east to west across the country, the wintering areas birds from eastern breeding areas tended to winter farther east than birds from farther west. So, he was the first to name these different groups of birds different populations, that’s how we came up with things like we used to have the Tennessee Valley population, they winter in the Tennessee Valley, but they breed in Southern James Bay, they later became known as Southern James Bay population, he identified the Atlantic population that nested in Northern Quebec, but wintered primarily on the East Coast, the Mississippi Valley population that bred in the Hudson Bay lowlands of Northern Ontario and then migrated through parts of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, farther east was the Eastern Prairie, all across. He kind of identified this pattern and named the populations. And back then in 1950, remember giant Canada geese were thought to be extinct, so there were a lot fewer Canada geese back then. And it made sense at the time that if you lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, for example, the birds that you were most concerned about were the ones that nested on the southern Hudson Bay coast of Northern Ontario. So if you wanted to make sure that those geese continued to come south and were abundant, you had to regulate harvest in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and that’s how we came to develop population management for Canada geese, so that the hunting regulations in different parts of the country reflected the status of those individual populations that had been identified.
Ramsey Russell: Back in the day, back in the Mississippi Delta, way back in the grand dad’s day that generation was goose hunters, not duck hunters, it’s when the migration began to wane they transitioned into duck hunting. What were those birds that would make it all the way down to Mississippi and even parts of Louisiana, I assume they were always called interiors and what became of them?
From Honkers to Quackers: Tracking the Waterfowl Shift in Granddad’s Day
Some of those may have been cackling geese of the Arctic nesters because they tended to migrate farther south.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I can’t say for sure. Some of those may have been cackling geese of the Arctic nesters because they tended to migrate farther south, but if there were larger Canada geese in those areas, then they would have probably been interiors from Northern Ontario.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. And they just began to winter further north?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. There’s 2 theories that were debated probably in the 70s and 80s, one of them was, this kind of the short stopping theory that birds that used to make a migration to the Southern portions of the Mississippi flyway stopped short and started wintering further north, I think that’s probably at least part of it. And the other was that these birds that maintained these long migrations actually had to kind of run the gauntlet they were subject to hunting pressure from the time they were in Canada all the way to the southern portion of the flyway. So there were concerns that the cumulative impact of hunting over those longer migrations may have led to some of those southern populations being extirpated. But I don’t think we have good evidence for that and I think the more likely scenario is that those birds started wintering farther north.
Ramsey Russell: Jim, you told me earlier about a James Bay population that was going down the Mississippi flyway through Ohio, parts of Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama and it’s interesting because we did a podcast one time on the law flyway way up in Northern Alabama and I’ll just digress and tell you a little bit about this, I shot a pair of, obviously, resident birds come off a Wheeler and my host got excited, I go, man, this is incredible. I go, it’s just a couple of resident geese, he said, yeah, well, after the hunt, I’m going to show you why it’s kind of cool. And we left and we went around to this old shed they had, about the size of this room and it was slap full big old timey homemade Canada goose decoys and he described to me that that field out in front of us where there are no Canada geese anymore used to have pit blinds and all those decoys were staked and if you look down the gravel road towards the gate, there was a line of trucks, man smoking cigarettes with the heater on waiting on that blind to finish up so they could move in and it was all day every day shooting migrater Canada in that part of Northern Alabama that now the general consensus is all just resident birds, if there’s any at all. I thought that was pretty darn interesting, but what became of those birds? What was that particular James Bay population going down there and in terms of management and everything else?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, originally, that was the population that Harold Hansen named the Tennessee Valley population, that was the name of the wintering population. And they later became known as the Southern James Bay population, they started to name populations based on where they nested instead of where they wintered. And even in my early career, I worked in Northern Ontario from 1990 till about 2002 and we started flying surveys in the James Bay and Hudson Bay Lowlands in 1989, 1990 to try and start estimating the numbers of Canada geese in those areas. And during those years, throughout the 1990s, we heard increasing concerns from Alabama, the state of Alabama at Mississippi flyway meetings about the apparent decline of Canada geese in that portion of the range, the birds were just not making that journey, the way they used to the Wheeler Refuge in in Alabama. And I had the opportunity actually to visit that refuge a couple of times and I gave a couple of presentations at the refuge, talk about the Canada geese because I worked on the opposite end of the range, where they nested in James Bay, so people were interested to hear about that. But they also wanted to know my opinion about why the geese weren’t coming to Alabama anymore. And part of the reason was, I mean, and I told him this the first time I ever came to Alabama, my overwhelming impression was that there was a refuge at Wheeler where they grew a lot of corn, but all around that refuge was cotton or really not anything of value, food value for Canada geese. So part of the reason they may have left Northern Alabama was that the landscape was dominated by cotton, there was relatively little food and most of what was available was actually on the refuge itself. So maybe changes on the wintering grounds led to them wintering farther north and maybe just changes in conditions overall, maybe habitat farther north, steadily improved to the point where it didn’t make sense to go that far south anymore. And the other part of the equation is that on the breeding grounds themselves, when we started to do surveys for the geese, we found that there were actually not that many, maybe a 100,000 or so that nested in Southern James Bay. So it could be that there were far more geese at some stage earlier before we started doing surveys, but that overall the population had declined.
Ramsey Russell: What’s it like managing a goose now when you’ve got big Canada geese and we talked a lot about subspecies previously, but from a management standpoint, it’s okay to say cackler and Canada, bigs and littles. How do you manage or what’s involved with the continental management now that we’ve got say, a 100,000 James Bay migrators going somewhere or interiors, Churchill is going somewhere and flying into a region that’s got just ginormous amounts of resident geese? I mean, you know what I’m saying? Are we splitting hairs again?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because a lot of this involves history and in the 1950s, when we first started naming and describing Canada goose populations according to where they nested and where they wintered, there were virtually no giant Canada geese, there were none of these temperate nesters or resident Canada geese that we have now everywhere. So the landscape has changed tremendously in the past 60 or 70 years, there are far more Canada geese today than probably there has ever been and the population of Canada geese that nest in the southern portion of the range, geese that were largely absent in the 1950s are now the most dominant population of geese on the continent. So this becomes very complicated in the case of Southern James Bay where you have a 100,000 birds migrating through a number of states and you’re trying to protect what’s considered a very small population that population of a 100,000 but there are literally millions of Canada geese everywhere they go.
Ramsey Russell: And they are in the same subcategory of Canada geese.
Jim Leafloor: They’re all Canada geese, but why do we make these distinctions? And there have been suggestions in the past that we could simplify Canada goose management, if we simply thought of them all, as one group as opposed to splitting them into these separate populations, which makes management very complicated. So in the Mississippi flyway, what eventually happened is, the Canada geese that nested in the southern portion of the flyway in Southern Canada all across the US became so abundant that we started to open hunting seasons in the first of September and those seasons often had very liberal bag limits, 5 birds a day and those seasons would run for about two weeks and then they would shut down and then a regular, what we call a regular hunting season would open, where the bag limit might be only 1 or 2 Canada geese. So it confused a lot of hunters. It’s like, we have these two weeks where it’s wide open, we have all this opportunity, we can harvest Canada geese and then when the big mass of Canada goose migration hits the state, when there are more Canada geese than ever, we can only shoot 1 or 2, how does this make sense? So we often found ourselves describing the system of population management for Canada geese and saying, we’re trying to make sure we don’t wipe out these geese from Southern James Bay, so we have to have conservative harvest strategies to do that. But meanwhile, we’re swamped with literally hundreds of thousands of giants or temperate nesting or resident Canada geese, whatever you want to call them. So, I think the Mississippi flyway has moved towards a more generalized approach to harvest management of Canada geese, but they’re still not all the way into a system where we treat all Canada geese the same, there’s still that flexibility to have restrictive hunting regulations where there are concerns about population size and some parts of the range. So this is important, as I was saying earlier, I think the most important part of the variation in white cheek geese is cacklers and Canadas. So for example, if we decided to manage Canada geese all the same as one group of birds and we said, okay, these Canada geese are super abundant, we can have very liberal hunting regulations, it would be very complicated, possibly if cackling geese suddenly tanked and there were very small numbers of cackling geese. So then how do you hold a hunting season for birds that are very similar in appearance and sometimes difficult for hunters to tell apart. How do you protect those small cacklers at the same time you’re trying to keep the pressure up on Canada geese? And that’s where the complications come, when you’re managing harvest. We’ve been fortunate that cackling gees in the midcontinent portion of North America are very abundant and there really are no concerns over harvest management in the midcontinent region for any of our goose populations at this time.
Ramsey Russell: That’s good to hear. I know over in the Atlantic flyway places like Maryland, I can remember back in the mid late 90s, they had a moratorium on hunting Canada geese period, now they had, I’d say a 2 Canada goose limit for a period of time since then and now they’re back down to 20 days and 1. And I know you’re Canadian wildlife service, not US, but where do you think those geese are coming from? Which of your birds that are breeding up here are going to that part of the United State would you guess and why the concern.
Wings of Concern: The Battle to Protect Atlantic Population Geese in Maryland
It was a lack of productivity and after years of research, it was discovered that the population wasn’t very productive because there wasn’t enough food on breeding areas for the goslings.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. So that’s either the Atlantic population or the North Atlantic, I think in Maryland, probably, Atlantic population geese that nest primarily in Northern Quebec and that’s the scenario. They had a number of years where the population in Northern Quebec declined or where they had relatively low production of goslings, there were concerns that that population was in a downward trend, so they restricted hunting of Canada geese to try and protect those birds. And it was exactly the same scenario in the mid-90s when closed Canada goose hunting altogether in parts of the Atlantic flyway. So, this system of population management gives you that flexibility that when there’s Canada geese in some portions of the range that are not doing well, you’re able to restrict harvest and try to protect those populations. But the other part of the story here is that those populations are not going to bounce back simply because you restrict harvest, they still need productivity to build the population. So if populations in Northern Quebec are declining because of a lack of recruitment or a lack of production, then restricting harvest on the East Coast of the US is not necessarily going to bring those birds back to where they were before. And this is the exact scenario that we saw for many years, we restricted harvest in Ontario and states to the south of Ontario to try and protect Southern James Bay Canada geese all through the 1990s. But the underlying cause of the small population was not overhunting, it was a lack of productivity and after years of research, it was discovered that the population wasn’t very productive because there wasn’t enough food on breeding areas for the goslings and this was all related to the dramatic increase that we saw in lesser snow geese. So, snow geese would go through areas of James Bay and Hudson Bay in the spring, millions of birds literally and strip a lot of the vegetation from very important breeding areas where Canada geese nested and raised their young. So, it kind of opened up the whole story, you had to do the studies to find out what was going on, why is there not better production and those studies eventually led to a better understanding of what’s controlling population.
Ramsey Russell: Ray Alasoskis was recently on here talking about the Midcontinent population of snow geese and how they’ve gone whatever 18 million, now to 8 million and that hunting had no impact that it was something a very similar function that just a little few centigrade warmer and the nitrogen had flushed through the green grass because it sprouted earlier and the juvenile snow geese weren’t getting the nutrition they needed and weren’t surviving. So something similar was happening with the populations of Canada. Dumb question, we said earlier that Canada geese are one of the most prolific waterfowl species everywhere, ubiquitous everywhere on the North American continent, how important is it to retain these individual breeding populations such as James Bay, such as the Quebec Atlantic. How important and why is it important or is it important?
Jim Leafloor: Well, yeah. Some people might say, well, why do we care? Why do we care if there’s no geese in Northern Ontario as long as we have lots of Canada geese in the south to harvest? But if you talk to the Cree people who live in James Bay, they might have a different perspective about that.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Jim Leafloor: So, they don’t want those birds to disappear and we don’t want to be responsible for allowing them to disappear, so that’s kind of why we have the type of regulatory system we have.
Ramsey Russell: We we’ve talked about this before managing waterfowl, it takes a village to raise a child, it takes cooperation to manage a continental resource. The Arctic, Canada, the US, I mean, it does, that’s why it’s important. Change of subject, a mutual friend of ours, the late Dan Spencer, you had mentioned earlier about Harold Hansen and the Jack Miner research, you did, Dan told me you got a pretty darn impressive collection of Jack Miner bands and I bet you somebody that’s listening or a lot of people today, don’t even know who Jack Miner was or what he was to the banding world, which is so important for conservation today. Can you talk a little bit about Jack Miner, the Jack Miner band you’ve managed to collect and where you collected them?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it’s interesting. I became interested in Jack Miner, after I learned a little something about Jack Miner bands. When I moved to Moose knee to be a biologist in 1990, I was a goose biologist there, they showed me to an office and they said, here’s your desk.
Ramsey Russell: Where’s Moose Knee.
Jim Leafloor: Moose knee is right at the southern tip of James Bay.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Jim Leafloor: So it’s in Northern Ontario and the area that I worked was essentially everywhere north of that, the whole coastline in Northern Ontario right to the Manitoba border. So Southern Hudson Bay and all of James Bay and all the Lowland area inland from there. So, yeah, when I moved into my office, one of the first things I did when I opened a drawers, I noticed there were a lot of these funny looking goose bands with bible verses on them, Jack Miner goose bands and it turned out that the area where I was working was one of the places where a lot of the birds that he banded ended up being shot in the spring by Cree hunters. Cree hunters in turn would bring those to the office and report them and they were just kicking around there wasn’t much else to it. And at first, I wasn’t all that curious about Jack Miner, but a couple of years later, a friend of mine, I was out hunting in Saskatchewan and I don’t know how this happened exactly, but I pulled the trigger one time and the stock on my gun broke and a friend of mine that I was with said, well, send your stock to a guy in Southern Ontario guy named Daryl Dennis, he’ll fix it for you, he’ll make you a new stock. So I did that, he sent me a new stock, put it on my gun, everything’s great, I said, Daryl, what can I pay you? And he said, oh, you don’t owe me anything just send me a Jack Miner goose band or two, which I did. And then I became curious about Jack Miner and like, why would it be so important for somebody to have a Jack Miner goose band? And I went on to learn that people were selling them at the time on eBay, they become a hot collector’s item. And I went on to read a book called I think it was called Wild Goose Jack. The history of Jack Miner or Jack Miner and the Birds, I believe it was. Well, it was written by Jack Miner, so autobiography. And it talked about, he lived in Kingsville, Ontario, Southwest Ontario and it talked about his early experimentation with banding birds and I think I’m sure he was the first in Canada to ever put a leg band on a migratory bird. And he started with a couple of Canada geese, I think, in about 1909 or somewhere in that area. And at that time on his property, there were a few birds, like a few Canada geese, but very few, but he encouraged them to stick around by feeding them corn and eventually his property became kind of a major stopover for Canada geese and it was his intent in putting these bands on birds to spread the word of god amongst the people who lived in the bush in Northern Ontario, the Cree hunters who were out there encountering these bands. And he put bands on birds every year from whatever, I can’t remember the first year, but early 1900 to today I think.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. They still band them.
Jim Leafloor: So I got interested in these things because there was all kinds of different bible verses on the bands, but they also stamped the bands with when the bird had been banded, so spring or fall, they had an S or an F on them and they had the year of banding. So there were all these different characteristics of the bands that made them kind of pieces of history in my view. So I started going through my desk drawer and I had a number of these bands and I just started collecting them, trading them, all these people that were buying and selling on eBay I traded bands and eventually I got to the point where I had Canada goose bands put on by Jack Miner that went all the way back to the early 1920s and all with, not everyone has a different bible verse, there were a number of those verses are repeated in different years. But some of them are just kind of interesting bible verses. I had one that said “No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” things like that to very simple messages just said, Have faith in God and that portion of the Bible. But one of my favorite, my personal favorite in the collection is a 1945 goose band that said “Thou shalt not kill” and I wonder what the hunter thought when he read that after he –
Ramsey Russell: I wonder. But that would have been also during time around World War II.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Jack Miner actually died in 1944 and this band would have been put on the year after his death.
Ramsey Russell: Spending that much time up in the Arctic, where he proselyzed Christianity to these people for so long, did you ever, in working with the indigenous people, did you ever hear a story or think maybe it worked? I mean, did it work?
Jim Leafloor: I’ve never heard a story that suggested to me that it worked. But I mean, there’s a church in every community in James Bay, I’m sure there’s at least one, sometimes multiple churches. So I know that religion has left a mark, not always a good one.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Do you think he was the first Canadian probably to put leg bands on birds? I’ve always wondered how he figured out that those birds were going up there. I mean, it wasn’t an internet, I just wonder how he figured out they were going somewhere that needed witnessing to.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think the very first band recoveries that he ever received came from up, what have been a what do they call them, a pastor or a minister on Moose Factory Island at James Bay like just across the river from Moose Knee where I used to live is Moose Factory. And it was either a Hudson Bay company factor or a pastor that reported, I think it was four goose bands that were harvested by some local hunters and he did it with a letter and he sent them back, I think he flattened them out, put them in an envelope and sent them back to Jack Miner because his address when Jack Miner, Kingsville, Ontario was also on the bands. And over the years, the Miner family collected all of these records, they kept track of them and that’s what Harold Hansen originally used in 1950, we published that first ever study of the relationships between nesting areas and wintering areas of Canada geese and he also named those individual populations that later became the basis for population management of Canada geese in North America.
Ramsey Russell: Little did Mr. Miner know that he was inflicting, not only religion, but continental waterfowl management.
Jim Leafloor: All that happened after his death in 1944.
Ramsey Russell: Did he inspire Canadian governments or Canadian wildlife services to start leg banding themselves? Did they find value what he did? I know talking to Nicolai, they’ve been banding since forever, but I just wonder.
Jim Leafloor: He had to have been at least some influence on the kind of modern banding programs that we have today. I mean, I think there were other people that were banding fairly early, early 1900s Audubon, I believe was maybe one of those people.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, way back when.
Jim Leafloor: But yeah, those populations have or those activities, the banding activities have just continued to grow. And one of the things that has made that possible is, the advent and development of computing. We have computers, we have the ability to put out literally hundreds of thousands of leg bands gather the information from recoveries and then mould that into an analysis that actually tells us something about goose populations or duck populations or any bird populations.
Ramsey Russell: It was my understanding that at some point in time in banding history, bands were used to kind of plot where birds were going to migration corridors. When did it transition to such an important harvested in management tool?
Jim Leafloor: That’s a good question. If I had to guess, this might have been slightly before my time, but I would have to say that in the late 1980s things were happening. Like, there were big advancements in computing, but also in statistical analysis, a lot of developments that made band recovery data much more useful and I think that’s an ongoing evolution that we still see developments in computers and analytical techniques that are ongoing today.
Ramsey Russell: One question I forgot to ask you earlier, we were talking about this before the podcast and I found it fascinating. I learned something, those James Bay birds or those Atlantic birds, they fly down south, you’ve got these resident populations and I said, comes up and finds him a good looking Canada goose and flies, go back to the breeding season, goes back with her, but that’s not the case.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. So what we talked about was, if a Canada goose that’s raised in James Bay fly south of the winter and it interacts with a local resident Canada say in from Southern Tennessee, you would think that they would just pair up and that Tennessee male would head back to James Bay with the female and there would be this large interbreeding population in Canada geese and that’s kind of the way it works in snow geese and in some of the other species, they tend to pair in the winter with birds that come from all over the place. So snow geese in Arkansas these days for example, will come from across the Arctic, multiple colonies all basically funnelled down into Arkansas now and all these birds are wintering there and some of those birds are form pairs. So if you have an individual snow goose from Churchill, Manitoba, for example, a fairly small colony, individual female from their mates with a male from Baffin Island, well, those geese would go back to Churchill. So the Baffin Island male is forced to move quite a distance, but the females determine where the nesting generally occurs. And you’d think it’d be the same for all geese, but Canada geese are not like that and this is actually a big part of the reason why Canada geese are so highly variable in size and shape, across their range. You see these patterns of variation in Canada geese that you don’t see in snow geese like snow geese are essentially the same, no matter where you see them, if it’s Baffin Island, South Hampton Island, Churchill, Queen Maud Gulf Bank Island wherever you find them, a snow goose is a snow goose or lesser snow goose. But Canada geese don’t tend to pair in the winter or if they do pair in the winter, they always tend to pair with birds from their own nesting area. So a female Canada goose that it hatches on say at Churchill is very likely to pair with a male that also hatched near Churchill. So the males tend to move a little more than females, but they tend to go back to the same areas where they’re hatched. So they’re philopatry in other words. So both males and females tend to return to the area where they were originally hatched. Males tend to disperse a little bit farther from their natal area than females, but in almost every case, they’re nesting with a bird from the same general area. So that’s what gives Canada geese more structure. Like, genetically, they’re not intermixing freely with Canada geese from all over the continent, they’re only intermixing with birds from their local area and that type of behavior leads to development of variation that’s that changes. So the farther north you nest, the farther west you nest or the farther east you nest, helps to determine what you’re going to look like as an adult bird.
Ramsey Russell: All things equal, assuming one doesn’t get shot along the way, do Canada geese really mate for life. They form bonds for life?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I think there have been cases documented where that pair bonds have split and both members of the pair are still alive, but I think that’s relatively rare. I think in the scientific literature, that would be an example of a divorce, where both are still alive, but paired up with other individuals. My understanding is that’s relatively rare and that mostly if both adults stay alive, then they’re going to be found with the same individuals that they paired with originally.
Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that something? Jim, do you have anything else to add? We covered a lot.
Jim Leafloor: Covered a lot of ground, not that I can think of.
Ramsey Russell: Well, thank you very much. I know you’re a busy person. Folks, you all been listening to Jim Leafloor, Head of Aquatic unit, Environment and Climate change, Canada, Canadian, Wildlife Service. And we’re going to start doing more species like this, I personally enjoy it and if you enjoy it too, hit me up and let me know what species you’d like here next and I’ll try to find them. Thank you all for this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. See you next time.
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