The Odd Goose

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2015

Have you ever seen an all-white goose hanging out with mallards and Canada geese during the summer?

Even though most of us are unfamiliar with barnyard geese it doesn’t take long to find out the white ones are escaped domestic waterfowl that naturally prefer the places where people feed ducks. Their scientific name is Anser anser domesticus (shown at left above), the same genus and species as their wild ancestor the greylag goose (Anser anser, shown at right).

Greylag geese are mottled gray-brown with paler breasts and bellies, orange bills, and pink legs.  Native to Europe and Asia they were domesticated about 4,000 years ago for their meat and eggs.  In addition to food, they’re useful as Watch Geese, quick to sound the alarm and chase off intruders.  The Roman historian, Livy, wrote that domestic geese saved Rome by warning of a night attack by the Gauls.

Selective breeding has given domestic geese bulky bodies and big butts but they are not always white and that causes identification problems.  Not only do some resemble their wild ancestors but geese freely hybridize.  When a barnyard goose mates with a Canada goose they produce some really odd offspring.  Click here for pictures of the many strange results.

If you find a gray-brown goose in western Pennsylvania your field guide will suggest the greater white-fronted goose but be careful before you decide that’s what you’ve found.

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds)
Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) breed in the arctic tundra and winter in Mexico and west of the Mississippi.  They’re a rare bird in western Pennsylvania so check carefully for a white forehead and base of bill, lots of black mottling on the belly, a smaller bill (than domestic geese) and less bulk.

Here’s the “white front” that gave them their name.  (I added the red arrow.)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, arrow added to indicate white front)
Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons. Arrow added to indicate white front.)

Chances are an odd goose seen in Pittsburgh has domestic relatives but take a really good look.  You never know …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: wild greylag goose, domestic goose, greater white-fronted geese from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds)

13 thoughts on “The Odd Goose

    1. Nancy, no that is a piece of cardboard (cutout) that blew into the nest on 10/29, a very windy day

  1. We had 3 white geese at our old place…the best watchdogs ever…esp when fishermen went where they weren’t supposed to go….grew up with gray geese….both the white and gray were very aggressive and not good to have them grab you and twist your skin…Congrats on your blog….

  2. Am I the only one that finds it odd that the last time Dorothy was seen was the same day the red cardboard blew into the scrape?

    1. Karen, I might have these dates wrong but I think the last time Dorothy was seen at the nest was in October, approx Oct 19. The cardboard blew in in early November.

    2. Your earlier message said it blew in October 29th. There was also a picture of Dorothy with the cardboard in front of her in the scrape.

    3. If you go on Google and enter Dorothy the peregrine falcon, halfway down the page is a whole montage of pictures of Doroty. one of those pictures shows her in the scrape with the red cardboard.

    4. Karen, I am not sure what website you saw it on. When I googled I saw it on Pitt Peregrines Facebook which *corrected* its original identification asn said, “Exciting news! Turns out that wasn’t Dorothy yesterday!” and explained the photo is of Hope. (This photo:

      I know of no picture of Dorothy with that red circle. If you know of one, please post the link.

      (Did you know that some people get different answers on Google than others do? Answers are tailored for the user).

  3. I’m pretty sure that there is a Greater white-fronted goose juvenile hanging out with many Canadian geese. I live in Columbus GA They were grazing around the neighborhood golf course. Is this an anomaly?

    1. David Shand, escaped domestic geese sometimes mix in with wild flocks of Canada geese. They can also hybridize with wild geese, creating offspring that sort of resemble white-fronted geese. Chances are high the bird you’ve seen is at least partly a domestic breed.

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