FEATURED SPECIES - LESSER SNOW GEESE
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

By Paul Dye

 On far off Wrangel Island, off the northern coast of Russia’s Siberia, in a good weather year, from 60 to 100 thousand Lesser Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) arrive to begin their cycle of nesting and brood rearing.  The Skagit-Fraser flock that winter in Washington and British Columbia, and part of the California wintering flock follow  a coastal migration route to staging areas in Alaska, primarily the Stikine River Delta, Cook Inlet, occasionally the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and then to Wrangel Island. The main nesting colony of these birds construct up to 40,000 nests, primarily near the Tunrovaya river in a depression in the Severnye mountains.  A small number of these snows (less than 1 %) occasionally also nest on the nearby mainland.

Skagit Snow Geese - Photo by John Munn, WSU Extension Naturalist

Studies have shown that most of the snow geese of the Wrangel population nest for the first time at the age of 4 or 5 years.

Those geese nesting outside the main colony usually nest in small groups either near snowy owl nests, or near areas where non-breeding snowy owls have established residence.  This is an example of one of those symbiotic relationships, where the presence of another species provides a benefit.

Nesting usually begins at the end of May or during the first few days of June, depending on snow conditions. The average clutch consists of from 3 to 4 eggs in size.  I n some years when heavy snow conditions are present, competing pairs fight for the nest sites in those areas free of snow, resulting in egg dumping, abandoned nests, and heaps of eggs laid outside the nests in those places.  Social tension has been known to get so high that some nest owners even kill strange females attempting to lay eggs in their nest. In 1999 three such ‘murdered’ birds were found, and in one case a carcass was trampled into the ground and covered with the nest material.  In such crowded years, raping of females mated to weak males, and solitary females is common.

In the seasons with a shortage of nesting territory within the main colony, there are many available nesting habitats in other parts of the island, particularly in the snowy owls nesting years.  Still, most of the birds prefer to struggle for nest sites within the main colony.  The number of geese reproducing outside the colony does not exceed 5% of the population.  This shortage of nesting territory results in these years being low production years for geese from this colony.

As you can see from the foregoing, production in these geese is dependent primarily on weather conditions in late June and early July, but it is also influenced by predation from arctic foxes as the young geese are growing.

Snow geese, and their surviving offspring begin leaving Wrangel Island in late August on their southern migration.  Band returns indicate that they travel eastward to Alaska, where an average of over 2,000 are harvested by natives in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.  They then separate into two major wintering subpopulations.  Part of the population follows an inland migration route to the central valley of California, while the other segment travel down the Alaska and B.C. coasts to wintering areas in the Skagit-Fraser estuaries, with some going on to California.  The first small flocks arrive on the Skagit-Fraser estuaries in late September and build in numbers throughout October and early November.  During November, those traveling further move out of the Skagit-Fraser areas to the Columbia River, where up to 2,000 have been known to winter, and the rest continue on toward California.

After those continuing on depart, the population in the Skagit-Fraser population is relatively stable until spring.  This flock declined to a low of 12,346 during 1974-75, and then grew to a high of 41,104 during 1987-96.  Age ratio counts on the Skagit area of Washington during 1948-96 have ranged from 0% to 50% juveniles in the fall population, with a pre hunting season mean of 16.9% for the period.

Snow geese in the Skagit-Fraser estuaries are dependent upon intertidal marsh vegetation dominated by three-square bulrush (Scirpus americanus).  In addition, snow geese are also dependent upon diked agricultural fields, primarily using cover crops such as winter wheat and pasture areas.  Recently, they have also begun using barley fields left for other wintering waterfowl.  Researchers on Wrangel Island have been able to identify those birds wintering in the Skagit-Fraser areas by the red facial staining caused by minerals in the tidal marshes of these areas.  This staining is missing on the birds wintering in other areas.

Hunting seasons for snow geese in the Skagit Delta generally lasted 93 days prior to 1975.  Due to concerns for the status of the Wrangel Island population, the season was shortened to 58 days in 1975-76 and 1976-77, and has generally run 79 to 86 days since that time.  Harvest estimates for the Skagit-Fraser population have averaged 4,869 since 1948 and 2,604 for the period 1987-96.

The White Goose Subcommittee of the Pacific Flyway Study Committee, composed of wildlife agency representatives from throughout the range of lesser snow geese, developed a management plan for the Wrangel Island population of lesser snow geese in 1992.  The plan sets forth goals, objectives, management challenges, and recommended management procedures for the Wrangel Island population of lesser snow geese.  In order to address management issues more specific to Washington State, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife developed a state management plan for Snow Geese in Washington.

This plan, intended to supplement cooperative management actions developed by the Pacific Flyway White Goose Subcommittee to provide population trend and harvest analysis and to determine potential solutions to any current Washington snow goose management problems, consists of the following goals and objectives.

  1. Maintain a wintering population of 35,000 snow geese (three year average), in the Skagit-Fraser estuaries of Washington and British Columbia.
  2. Maintain adequate habitat and reserves to meet population objectives.
  3. Provide for educational, scientific, aesthetic, and recreational uses.

 

CAPTIVE MANAGEMENT

For those aviculturists wishing to keep a flock of uniformly white lesser snow geese without the presence of the blue color phase, these Wrangel Island snows are ideal.  Although an occasional blue goose is seen in their presence in the wild, on the wintering grounds, these are suspected of being strays from the North American population of lesser snows that nest in arctic Canada.

Captive management of these snows does not differ appreciably from that of the more common North American lesser or greater races. If kept in a small flock (I recommend 4 pair or more) they nest readily, with reasonable fertility.  Their feed needs are simple, in that while they relish fresh grass to graze, they subsist perfectly well on a diet of whole grains and prepared poultry rations.   Of course, in spring, just prior to nesting season, I increase the protein content of their feed, as I do for most other species to about 20%.

Like all the other snow goose races, these Wrangel Island birds are very hard on any lawn grass areas you might wish to maintain within their enclosure.  Unlike Brant, Emperors, Ross and Lesser Whitefronts, that clip the tips off grass shoots when they graze it, snows often grab whole clumps of grass and pull it out of the ground, roots and all.   For this reason, maintaining any attractive lawn areas in their enclosure is a difficult job.  Even though I maintain my flock of snows in an almost 1 acre pen, I seem to only be able to maintain lawn areas by fencing the geese off it for two months at a time, allowing the grass time to recover.   I try to time their access to lush grass to those periods when it is important to stimulate egg laying and later on, for brood rearing.  This seems to work, although the recovering grass areas do, on occasion, need over-seeding with grass seed to mend “ratty looking” areas.

My captive Wrangel Island snows, once they are satisfied with their facilities and decide to initiate nesting, are not terribly particular about the actual nest site. They tend to spread their nests widely around the enclosure, probably to keep the aggressive ganders from constantly fighting.  As you might expect, the larger and tougher the gander, the larger the nest site he defends. 

Nest sites vary from the odd hidden nook against a building or fence, to thickly vegetated locations under shrubs and trees.  One of the favorite nest sites for my snows are the raised “see through” structures designed for my Emperor Geese.  These nest structures are 30” wide by 30” high, and 36” deep from front to back.  They have  a solid back and roof, but have widely spaced planking, or “half rounds” (outer log edges purchased from a local mill) on both sides, and have a completely open front.  I place these structures on a raised area of coarse sand for good drainage to minimize egg loss from wet ground conditions in a rainy spring.  Within the structure, on the sand, I install an old discarded automobile tire, which I fill halfway with more sand, and the rest of the way with hay or coarse cedar shavings.  The use of the cedar shavings is preferred in any enclosure also housing eiders, as the presence of mold on hay can cause aspergillosis, if contacted by the eiders.  

Snow Geese nest year after year in same structure

A pair of what I consider “contented” or “well adjusted” snows will produce about 5 or 6 eggs per clutch, although an occasional pair may lay only 1 or 2.  As occurs in the wild, “dump nests” do occur, possibly due to a shortage of nest sites, but also sometimes because of a shortage of eligible males, resulting in trios.  If I notice dump nesting early enough I remove all but 6 eggs, and incubate the removed eggs under bantams or in an incubator, in order to prevent a poor hatch.

Snow Goose goslings practically “raise themselves”, although many factors can cause their loss.  I seem to have best success rearing them by separating family groups into portable 4’ by 8’ pens that are moved around lawn areas to provide a steady supply of fresh, clean grass.   I supplement the grass with twice/daily feedings of a good waterfowl or gamebird starter feed, accompanied by a small amount of standard rations for the adults.

These portable pens house the family groups for approximately the first two weeks, and protect the young geese from aggression by other family groups, and predation by hawks, owls, and eagles.  I have been surprised by the efficiency of these predators, especially eagles, in harassing the parents of families left out in the main enclosure, causing them to run ahead of their goslings.  The predator then simply lands in between the parents and young, and eats the young geese as they run past.   By the end of the two week period the goslings are able to keep up with their parents.

The portable pens also provide a level of protection from pathogens, such as coccidia, and parasites, such as gapeworm, that seem to eventually find their way into an established goose flock.  I suspect these maladies are brought in by wild bird visitors, and especially by visiting wild geese.  There still would be some level of exposure to these pests via the parents, but the idea is to keep it low enough the gosling’s developing immune system is able to keep it in check.  If not, the isolated families are easy to keep track of, and the remedies for these problems easy to administer.

Another big advantage of separating family groups is the ability to let the goslings get big enough to be fitted with bands that identify their family.  Since they are still not fully grown I use color-coded wire ties that can easily be replaced as they grow.  This has the obvious advantage of assuring that you can provide unrelated pairs to other breeders when they are available.  I have found that if the broods are allowed to run all together from the beginning, an aggressive pair will sometimes “kidnap” goslings from less aggressive pairs, and you lose the ability to keep track of bloodlines.

For those aviculturists contemplating a new species to enjoy, I can certainly recommend these lesser snows.  Although easily managed, a flock of these white geese gliding gracefully across a pond, or grazing peacefully in a pasture is a pleasure to behold.

References:
Washington Snow Goose Management Plan Outline, Draft 4/96, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Breeding Of The Lesser Snow Goose in Limited Nesting Area, V. V. Baranyuk (1999)

Mineral Staining of Facial Plumage as an Indicator of The Wintering Ground Affinities of Wrangel Island Lesser Snow Geese, V. V. Baranyuk, J. E. Hines, and E. V. Syroechkovsky

Paul & Lynn Dye
Northwest Wildfowl Farm
10114 54th Place N.E., Everett, WA 98205 USA

Phone:(425)334-8223 Fax:(425)397-8136
E-mail: dye@greatnorthern.net

Home | Farm | About Paul & Lynn |Featured Species | Getting started | Veterinary Care | FAQ | Community | Gardens | Articles | Orgs | Links