by Frank Keim
Every fall while teaching in Scammon Bay in the 1980’s I used to hear Snow geese “barking” high in the sky as they wended their way east then south during migration. This took place in mid to late October and their nasal barks heralded the end of the fall migration for all species of geese and for most Tundra swans and any straggler Sandhill cranes. It also signaled the true beginning of winter.
Many of the Snow geese stopped to feed at what local people called the Sand Lakes at the east end of the Askinuk Mountains, and it was where Scammon Bay hunters traveled by boat up the Qan River to add more high-quality food to their winter larder. Since the huge skeins of geese were coming from the west across the Norton Sound (a part of the Bering Sea), I wondered where they had begun their journey.
I later learned they were a part of two populations of Snow geese that had been introduced to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea north of the Siberian coast in the mid-1900’s after hunters had decimated the geese and the Soviets established a Snow goose reserve on the island in 1969 to encourage the increase in the bird’s numbers.
I also learned that they were headed for two different wintering grounds: one in southwest B.C. and northwest Washington state, and the other in California and southern Oregon. I never heard or saw the large V-formations of these geese during their spring migration, but suspected they were crossing farther to the north where the distance over the Bering Strait would be less for them as they flew against the prevailing westerly winds.
When Snow geese finally reach their nesting grounds on Wrangel Island, they get right down to the business of building a nest and raising a family. No preliminaries are necessary, since pair bonding for young birds already took place during the winter months and the older birds were already mated for life. The female alone builds the nest, starting with a simple scrape on the ground, but as she lays her eggs she adds fluffy down feathers plucked from her own breast, plus other materials such as eelgrass, seaweed, leaves and willow twigs. Their nests range from 3–6.5 feet across.
Only one brood of 2-6 creamy-white eggs is laid, and the incubation period by the female alone is about 24 days. She may spend 21 or more hours per day on the nest, while the male stands guard to defend her and her nest against predators and other Snow geese. All of the eggs hatch at the same time and the nestlings leave the nest within 24 hours, sometimes walking up to 50 miles with their parents in the first three weeks of hatching to a more suitable feeding area.
Snow geese are vegetarians with huge appetites for sedges, grasses, rushes, forbs, horsetails (Equisetum), shrubs and willows. They will eat almost every part of a plant, including stems, leaves, seeds, tubers and roots, either by grazing, shearing plants off at ground level, or ripping entire stems from the ground. While adult females forage up to 18 hours per day after they arrive at their breeding grounds, they eat very little once they begin incubating their eggs. The goslings eat wild fruits, flowers, young horsetail shoots and fly larvae. During migration and in winter months they also eat grains and young stems of farm crops, along with a variety of berries.
Food passes through the goose’s digestive tract in only an hour or two, so with such large numbers of birds, (Wrangel Island Snow geese numbered about 100,000 pairs in 2017), their tundra nesting areas are beginning to suffer badly everywhere, depriving not only the geese of sufficient food, but also other species such as shore birds.
As they feed, you might see among their numbers a dark form with a white head. This is a color variant called the “Blue goose.” The dark color of this blue morph Snow goose is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partly dominant over white. If a pure dark goose mates with a white goose, the young will all be dark (although sometimes with white bellies). If two white geese mate, they have only white offspring. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark young, but might have a few white ones too.
While teaching in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay, elders told me the Yup’ik name of the Snow goose was Kanguq, which is imitative of their call. Their scientific name Anser caerulescens means: “goose that is pale blue” (although only 1-2 % of Snow geese are of this color). An interesting common English name for the goose is Common wavey.