Leonard often laments that cackling geese were once common winter visitors where we make our home in Big Valley (Northeastern California). However since the late 1980s and early 1990s the cackling geese disappeared. It has been years since we saw one in Big Valley.
Last week Leonard and I were observing a mixed flock of snow, Ross’s and greater white-fronted geese when he suddenly exclaimed, “There’s a cackling goose!!!” We were both excited to observe a single cackling goose in the flock feeding in an alfalfa field along Highway 91 outside of Lookout CA (Modoc County).
A cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) looks like a Canada goose (Branta canadensis). The difference is size. A Canada goose is about 45″ in length while a cackling goose measures 25″ in length. In the photograph the cackling goose looks close in size to the greater white-fronted (28″) and snow (26-33″) geese.
Until 2004 cackling geese were considered the smallest subspecies of Branta canadensis, the Canada goose. Genetic work resulted in separating the cackling goose from the Canada goose. Currently there are 3 to 5 cackling goose subspecies, depending on the reference. The common name comes from the higher pitched voice of the cackling goose when compared to the Canada goose.
Why did cackling geese effectively disappear from Big Valley? Previously cackling geese spent their winters in the Central Valley of California and Klamath Basin (Oregon) while summering in the Arctic tundra. (There are other cackling goose populations that winter elsewhere, but I am concerned here about the California and Klamath Basin populations.) Over the years the number of cackling geese fluctuated and reached a low in the mid-1980s. As populations rebounded from this low, there was a shift from wintering in the Central Valley of California and Oregon’s Klamath Basin to spending winters in the Williamette Valley and the Columbia River Basin. Currently over 95% of the cackling geese that wintered in the Central Valley and Klamath Basin now use the Willamette Valley and Columbia River Basin. That is why the cackling geese are now extremely rare where we live.
Several theories are suggested for the change in wintering locales. The most probable involves habitat degradation in California with concurrent habitat improvement in Oregon. Other ideas include “ease of migration” – the route to the Oregon wintering grounds is shorter without high mountains to cross.
Currently the number of cackling geese remains stable at about 150,000 individuals. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaskan subsistence hunters and the western coastal states have entered an agreement to restrict hunting on breeding and wintering grounds with the goal of increasing cackling geese numbers to about 250,000 birds along this Oregon flyway.
Leonard and I found one cackling goose and will continue to watch for strays in local flocks.