AppearanceThe snow goose has two color plumage morphs, white or gray/blue, thus the common description as "snows" and "blues." White-morph birds are white except for black wing tips, but blue-morph geese have bluish-grey plumage replacing the white except on the head, neck and tail tip.
The immature blue phase is drab or slate-gray with little to no white on the head, neck, or belly. Both snow and blue phases have rose-red feet and legs, and pink bills with black tomia , giving them a black "grin patch." The colors are not as bright on the feet, legs, and bill of immature birds. The head can be stained rusty-brown from minerals in the soil where they feed. They are very vocal and can often be heard from more than a mile away.
White- and blue-morph birds interbreed and the offspring may be of either morph. These two colors of geese were once thought to be separate species; since they interbreed and are found together throughout their ranges, they are now considered two color phases of the same species.
The color phases are genetically controlled. The dark phase results from a single dominant gene and the white phase is homozygous recessive. When choosing a mate, young birds will most often select a mate that resembles their parents' coloring. If the birds were hatched into a mixed pair, they will mate with either color phase.
The species is divided into two subspecies on the basis of size and geography. Size overlap has caused some to question the division. The smaller subspecies, the lesser snow goose, lives from central northern Canada to the Bering Straits area. The lesser snow goose stands 64 to 79 cm tall and weighs 2.05 to 2.7 kg.
The larger subspecies, the greater snow goose, nests in northeastern Canada. It averages about 3.2 kg and 79 cm, but can weigh up to 4.5 kg. The wingspan for both subspecies ranges from 135 to 165 cm. Blue-morph birds are rare among the greater snow geese and among eastern populations of the Lesser.
DistributionThe breeding population of the lesser snow goose exceeds 5 million birds, an increase of more than 300% since the mid-1970s. The population is increasing at a rate of more than 5% per year. Non-breeding geese are not included in this estimate, so the total number of geese is even higher.
Lesser Snow Goose population indices are the highest they have been since population records have been kept, and evidence suggests that large breeding populations are spreading to previously untouched sections of the Hudson Bay coastline.
HabitatOutside of the nesting season, they usually feed in flocks. In winter, snow geese feed on left-over grain in fields. They migrate in large flocks, often visiting traditional stopover habitats in spectacular numbers. Snow geese often travel and feed alongside greater white-fronted geese; in contrast, the two tend to avoid travelling and feeding alongside Canada geese, which are often heavier birds.
The population of greater snow geese was in decline at the beginning of the 20th century, but has now recovered to sustainable levels. Snow geese in North America have increased to the point where the tundra breeding areas in the Arctic and the saltmarsh wintering grounds are both becoming severely degraded, and this affects other species using the same habitat.
ReproductionLong-term pair bonds are usually formed in the second year, although breeding does not usually start until the third year. Females are strongly philopatric, meaning they will return to the place they hatched to breed.
Snow geese often nest in colonies. Nesting usually begins at the end of May or during the first few days of June, depending on snow conditions. The female selects a nest site and builds the nest on an area of high ground. The nest is a shallow depression lined with plant material and may be reused from year to year. After the female lays the first of 3 to 5 eggs, she lines the nest with down. The female incubates for 22 to 25 days, and the young leave the nest within a few hours of hatching.
The young feed themselves, but are protected by both parents. After 42 to 50 days they can fly, but they remain with their family until they are 2 to 3 years old.
Where snow geese and Ross's geese breed together, as at La Pérouse, they hybridize at times, and hybrids are fertile. Rare hybrids with the greater white-fronted goose, Canada goose, and cackling goose have been observed.
PredatorsMajor nest predators include Arctic foxes and skuas. The biggest threat occurs during the first couple of weeks after the eggs are laid and then after hatching. The eggs and young chicks are vulnerable to these predators, but adults are generally safe. They have been seen nesting near snowy owl nests, which is likely a solution to predation.
Their nesting success was much lower when Snowy Owls were absent, which leads scientists to believe that the owls, since they are predatory, were capable of keeping competing predators away from the nests. A similar association as with the owls has been noted between geese and rough-legged hawks. Additional predators at the nest have reportedly included wolves, coyotes and all three North America bear species. Few predators regularly prey on snow geese outside of the nesting season, but bald eagles will readily attack wintering geese.
MigrationSnow geese breed from late May to mid August, but they leave their nesting areas and spend more than half the year on their migration to-and-from warmer wintering areas. During spring migration, large flocks of snow geese fly very high along narrow corridors, more than 3000 miles from traditional wintering areas to the tundra.
The lesser snow goose travels through the Central Flyway, across some of the richest farmland in America. Traditionally, the geese wintered in coastal marsh areas where they used their short but very strong bills to dig the roots of marsh grasses for dinner. The first transition was to rice fields, where the geese could graze on weeds and eat the grain left behind by the combine. A decade later the geese had mastered field feeding and had diversified into wheat, corn, sorghum and practically any other field grain they encountered. The geese had also begun to graze in fall-seeded grain fields, especially winter wheat. Snow Geese now feed in grain fields as soon as they reach the prairies in September, and they continue to use agricultural fields until they leave the prairies in April and May on their way to Arctic breeding areas.
Many biologists think the shift in winter feeding has led to the over-abundance of geese. Winter may be the time of year that sets the upper limit to goose populations. Now, the abundance of waste agricultural grain has provided snow geese with excellent forage and has improved the survival of wintering geese. The national wildlife refuges bought to protect habitat also help to increase survival. Therefore, more geese are returning to the Arctic to breed each spring. Those returning geese are in much better physical condition than was the case when geese did not use agricultural grain but foraged in marshland.
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