Canada Goose: Bird Facts and Identification

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

Learn what a Canada goose looks like and sounds like, if it's OK to feed Canada geese, and what to do if a family is nesting in your yard.

What Does a Canada Goose Look Like?

278028759 1 William Mcdonald Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy William Mcdonald
The Canada goose is an easy bird to identify.

One of the first water birds many people learn to identify, often without even trying, is the Canada goose. It helps that this species is visually distinctive and behaviorally bold! You’ll know them by their black head and neck, white chinstrap that extends up their cheeks and beneath their eyes and their large grayish-brownish bodies. They weigh anywhere between six and 14 pounds with wingspans of up to 66 inches.

Discover 20 types of ducks to look for in spring.

Canada Goose vs Cackling Goose

Although Canada geese have characteristic features, they can be confused with cackling geese. (They’re so similar that before 2004, the cackling goose was considered a subspecies.) But there are a few ways to spot the difference between them.

“Cackling geese are smaller and have a higher pitched call,” says Dr. Mike Ward, an ornithology research scientist and professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “They’re also much rarer than Canada geese and breed in the Arctic, coming to the U.S. in winter.”

Canada Goose Habitat and Range

307014430 1 Amber Radivojevic Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Amber Radivojevic
These birds are often spotted near water

You’ll find Canada geese throughout the U.S. and Canada as well as in western Europe where they were introduced in the 17th century, but Mike says their population has shifted.

“Canada geese were once nearly extinct in the Midwest in the 1960s but their populations have increased greatly since then,” he says. Conservation efforts to address habitat loss as well as hunting regulations have played a role in bringing Canada geese numbers up. In addition, they were reintroduced to several states where they had been absent for decades. There are now about five million in North America alone.

Like the common mallard duck, Canada geese are nearly ubiquitous, especially close to bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes and rivers. They’re also common in parks and yards. They typically live most of the year in the Midwest and other upper states of the U.S. but migrate south in winter.

Couclc17 Celynn Siemons 003Courtesy Celynn Siemons
Not all Canada geese fly south for winter.

However, their migration patterns are changing. “We’ve been tracking Canada geese and find that some will stay in the same neighborhood their entire lives while others move around widely. Some geese no longer migrate at all and just hunker down for winter instead,” Mike says.

Diet: What Does a Canada Goose Eat?

Bnbbyc17 Melissa RowellCourtesy Melissa Rowell
Canada geese nibbling on grass

Canada geese are herbivores, meaning that they solely eat vegetation, such as grasses, grains, aquatic plants, seeds and more. And, as you’ve probably observed first-hand in your local park, Canada geese eat food for humans, too.

But in case you were wondering, it’s best to leave the stale bread at home. “People really should not feed them,” Mike says. “Often, people will feed Canada geese things like bread, which really isn’t good for them. There’s plenty of natural food sources available, so humans do not need to directly feed them anyway.”

Canada Goose Nesting Habits

Bnbbyc18 Faye FitzgibbonsCourtesy Faye Fitzgibbons
Canada goose nest

Canada geese mate for life and stick with the same partner for decades. Similarly, when it comes to building their nest and raising their young, they also work as a team. The female Canada goose selects the nest site and builds the nest out of grasses and moss, lining it with her feathers and other soft material.

“Geese used to nest in wetlands, but over the last several years, we see Canada geese breeding in many odd places,” Mike says. “They’ll nest in landscape islands in parking lots, on roofs and in any green space.”

310090015 1 Jude Odonnell Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Jude Odonnell
Canada goose eggs and nestlings

While she incubates the eggs, the male stands guard. Together, they raise their young—usually a brood of two to eight goslings. “Once the eggs hatch, the young follow the adults for several weeks, feeding on grass or aquatic vegetation,” notes Mike. Canada geese only have one brood per breeding season and offspring tend to stay with their parents for about a year.

Canada Goose Calls and Sounds

276189523 1 Eric Sydenstricker Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Eric Sydenstricker
Canada geese honking in flight

A classic sound in fall is a flock of Canada geese flying in V-formation overhead and making honking sounds. And if you’ve ever gotten too close to a Canada goose, you’ve probably heard a hiss or two.

Canada geese are territorial and on guard for predators, so a lot of the honking, barking and hissing is to either warn each other of danger–or scare off perceived danger. They also use vocalizations to attract, greet and otherwise communicate with their paired mate and family members.

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

How to Deter a Canada Goose

Morning Canada Goose walkCourtesy Dan Pearson / Our Canada
Canada geese can be a nuisance when they gather in residential areas.

It’s understandable to appreciate Canada geese but not want a family of them in your backyard. There are many tools on the market available designed to deter Canada geese, but Mike is skeptical of their success rate. “Typically, most devices meant to scare away geese don’t work, though some approaches, like laser emitters, are worth trying,” he says.

Instead, Mike suggests addressing what makes your space so enticing in the first place. “Geese are generally in a person’s yard because they’re eating the grass. They like mowed grass, so if someone doesn’t want geese in their yard, they can allow their grass to grow high — or replace the grass with native shrubs and plants,” Mike says.

Besides discouraging Canada geese, this approach has a major benefit of attracting more songbirds and pollinators to your backyard.

About the Expert

Dr. Mike Ward is currently the Stuart L. and Nancy J. Levenick Chair in Sustainability in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. He’s also an ornithologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Dr. Ward conducts research on avian ecology and conservation throughout the Midwest, as well as in Texas, Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and Cuba.