All About the Canada Goose

There was a time when Canada geese flying overhead in the waning days of fall evoked an autumnal melancholy, ragged “V” silhouetted against an October twilight, haunting cry suggesting the stirring of some ancient, primal call to set forth, to flee the encroaching descent of winter’s icy pall. 

That was, of course, before flocks of Canada geese set up housekeeping in the local shopping complex, colonized your subdivision’s walking paths, invaded the area’s golf courses, took a shining to your office park’s water feature. These days, Canada geese feel about as “call of the wild” as a Netflix subscription. 

There are actually a number of subspecies that fall under the header “Canada goose,” but according to James Parkhust, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and extension specialist in fish and wildlife conservation, the most common of these in the mid-Atlantic region—the ones you see waddling across the Costco parking lot and dawdling by the city park lakeside—are the giant Canada goose, Branta canadensis maxima.

And yes, there was a time when these birds were indeed migratory, breeding in summer far into northern Canada then heading south to winter grounds in the U.S., with the Chesapeake Bay region a favored destination. Today, however, there are two populations of giant Canada geese in Virginia: seasonal visitors and year-round permanent residents. As Parkhurst notes in a publication for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the migrators are referred to as the “Atlantic Population,” and their numbers have fluctuated significantly—from a high of nearly one million birds in 1981 to as few as 29,000 breeding pairs in the mid-1990s. 

Photo credit: Greg Houston

And then there are the permanent residents, the ones who at some point seem to have taken a look around at the abundant, grassy spaces, decorative ponds, river banks, agricultural fields, and temperate winters of our Commonwealth and wondered whatever possessed themselves to go haring off to Canada every spring. And so they stayed. And here they are, forsaking the McDonald’s landscaping and heeding the clarion call of the manicured lawn of the Wells Fargo on the other side of the street, ambling across the 45 m.p.h thoroughfare with the stately insouciance of a royal procession, bringing four lanes of impatient morning commuter traffic to a standstill.

Given how ubiquitous the birds are now, you might be surprised to learn that canadensis maxima was once thought to have gone extinct. Then in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the bird had been rediscovered in a flock overwintering in Minnesota. To say that it has successfully rebounded since then might seem something of an understatement, so you might further be surprised to learn that, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), the number of resident Canada geese in Virginia actually peaked some 25 years ago at more than a quarter-million birds. Hunting helped put a hurting on those numbers, and in 2022 the DWR estimated the population at 170,000 geese.

Now is the season of “peak goose” in Virginia, with both permanent and migratory populations in residence, and you might be forgiven for thinking that a little less goose would be acceptable, and thus appreciate the contribution of those hunters. The question then arises: are the birds  bagged merely for trophy status or are they actually good eating? 

The answer seems to be a case of “it depends.” Referred to by culinary enthusiasts as the “roast beef” or “rib eye” of the sky, Canada goose, when properly prepared, apparently tastes somewhat like steak. The “properly prepared” however, 
is the kicker. Writing for The Atlantic magazine about her first meal of roast Canada goose, the Canadian locavore Sarah Elton noted that it took her father five hours just to pluck, skin, and gut the goose, “and when he was done, the lawn was covered with a fine layer of goose down.” And that’s before the cooking even began. If you’re thinking about a Christmas goose, you might want to start planning somewhere around Thanksgiving. 

Caroline Kettlewell is an insatiably curious writer who has a particular interest in stories about science, health, and the natural world.

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