Sunday, October 28, 2007

Apple #277: Goose Honking

More Canada geese have been flying around lately, gearing up for winter, I suppose. I'll hear one or two of them honking, I'll look up, and there's a whole big V of them not that far overhead, on their way to the next open grassy spot or little pond nearby.

I like to hear their honking noises, especially when they're flying like that. Because otherwise, they're so quiet, the way their enormous wings beat the air. And something about their honking sounds so human and funny to me. I just find it delightful.

Canada Goose
(Photo from the Carson River Watershed)

I'm sure the honking communicates a lot of different things depending on the situation. But I'm curious, what do people know about their honking sounds so far? What kinds of things do we know that geese are trying to tell each other?

It turns out, biologists -- and hunters -- have grouped their calls into categories. I'll name and describe each of the primary ones in turn.

Contact, or "I'm over here, where are you?"
  • Geese can call to each other while they're flying. And actually, when they honk, they do so in a way that's synchronized with the beating of their wings. That is, they let go of the honk when their wings hit the downbeat, again and again and again as they beat their wings. This keeps their wing movements and their breathing all coordinated. You try it and see which is more natural: exhaling when you drop your arms or when you raise them.
  • Geese can also call to each other while they're landing. But the sound is different, probably because they're flapping their wings faster and they're also backpedaling their feet quickly. So the calling is similarly fast, short, and loud, a kind of clucking sound. With all that going on with their wings and their feet, they probably don't have a lot of wind left over for anything more complex than that.
  • They also talk to each other while they're feeding. Typically, most of the geese will graze around, their heads bent to the grass, while one or maybe two others stands upright and keeps watch, swiveling its head here and there to make sure nobody's going to sneak up on the group. The ones that are eating will sort of gabble to each other to make sure nobody wanders too far from the sentinel. The sound is a two-note honk, like kherr-onk. It's also more guttural, probably because their heads are bent. The sentinel will answer back in a similar guttural fashion.

Geese grazing, one on look-out
(Photo from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Greeting or Status
  • If geese in the same family get separated -- the gander had to go chase somebody off, the female had to leave the nest, the goslings got distracted -- when they come back together, the geese will say hello to each other. The goose extends its head and neck and lets out a loud, slow honk that fades away as the goose runs out of breath. "Hhhhhhhhii."


  • There's also a version of this communication that goes on between the goslings and the parents. The goslings peep peep peep like crazy almost all the time. The parents will talk to their young less often, probably when it's really necessary. They'll make a soft unk after the chicks hatch and then again when they're all eating together. If the goslings wander a little too far from the parents, they'll get louder in their call to the young to round them all up again.

Geese parents with the young in tow
(Photo from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

Silence is the alarm

  • The geese keep up their patter while they're eating so that, actually, it's silence that acts as the alarm. When the sentinel keeps his or her head up and says nothing, the other geese pick up on the silence and the watchfulness, and they'll lift their heads, too. If enough of them think there's enough of a threat, they'll all take off.


  • Before the geese are going to take to the air, they let each other know they're about to fly. In fact, the gander (male) father will tell everybody else in his family that this is what's going to happen. He'll honk, but as he does so, he lifts his head so the bill is pointing to the sky and shakes his head back and forth. This makes the white cheek patches on either side of his face flash -- a signal that's hard for the other geese to miss. He keeps doing this, even as he starts to take off, matching the timing of his calls to the wing strokes, and everybody else will join in. They'll stop the take-off honking once everybody's in the air and going at a pretty good clip.
There's a really good photo here of a goose landing, and you can tell in the picture that the goose is saying something. I didn't link to it because the photographer has the copyright insignia stamped on it.

Mating Triumph
  • After the gander has claimed his mating territory, he'll let everybody know it. He tilts his head back and honks several times really loudly and really fast, until he thinks everybody has probably heard him. He'll slow down and let the sound die away until he's quiet again and goes back to his eating.

Agonistic, or Warning

  • When the geese are on the ground and they perceive a predator or a threat approaching, and they don't want to give up their territory, they'll honk in a way that tries to warn away the threat. They combine honking and clucking in rapid succession. The call is almost always the same, but it can be accompanied by different body language depending on how aggressive they perceive the threat to be and how aggressive they think they need to be in return.
  • The first level is if they're on the ground and another flock of geese in the air is thinking of landing nearby. They'll call to the geese in the air, bills to the sky, mouth open and tongue extended. Sometimes that's enough to make the other geese decide to go someplace else.
  • If there's a goose on the ground or in the water that a more dominant goose wants to go away, he'll keep his head bent to the ground but he'll pump it up and down while he calls to the unwanted goose. Usually the call is short, a Hut Hut sound. It's sort of like saying, "You're not worth my time to raise my head, but get out of here." Usually the unwanted goose will move away.
  • If the unwanted goose doesn't move away, then the main goose will lift his head, hold it at a slight tilt, and give that fast, double-honk some more. If the subdominant goose still doesn't move, he'll get bitten or slapped with a wing.
  • Finally, when a predator or a human comes too close, especially when goslings or eggs are nearby, the goose will hiss with its mouth open and tongue out: back off!

This mother goose is telling the guy with the camera to back off now, buster!
(Photo by Michael Laszlo)

I've done an entry on Canada geese before, but on an entirely different aspect of their lives.

T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, Understanding Goose Communication and Goose Communication and Calling
T.R. Michels, Advanced Goose Calling, Wildfowling Magazine International
Ducks Unlimited Canada, Facts on Canada Geese
Hinterland Who's Who, Bird Fact Sheets: Canada Goose

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