A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Black head and neck with a white "chin strap." Black legs, black tail feathers. Otherwise brown overall, but white under the tail. To most people, looks like a small version of Canada Goose. Usually in flocks or small groups, typically (but not always) close to water. 

Distinguishable from all other geese (except Canada Goose--see below) by its white chin strap, but this bird is a source of much confusion and sometimes heated debate among birders because of a number of complications. Until recently, it was considered a race of Canada Goose. The American Ornithologists' Union, split Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and Cackling Goose in 2004. The Union now recognizes seven subspecies of Canada Goose--although most field guides are content to show three or four--and five subspecies of Cackling Goose. Several of the subspecies formerly associated with Canada Goose are now viewed as subspecies of Cackling Goose, and older (pre-2005 or so) field guides will show Cackling Goose (if at all) under the heading of Canada Goose.

Yes, it's very confusing, and I don't have all the answers, but, from the perspective of the casual or even more serious birder in Sonoma County, it's probably sufficient to accept that in Sonoma County you are most likely to see: 1) Canada Goose (ignoring subspecies); 2) Cackling Goose (ignoring subspecies); or 3) the Aleutian subspecies of Cackling Goose (formerly considered the Aleutian subspecies of Canada Goose). I make this assertion based on what I have most commonly observed in the county myself. Others may disagree. The Aleutian subspecies of Cackling Goose is characterized by a distinct (usually half an inch or more wide) white band at the base of the black neck, although any of the Cackling Goose subspecies may show traces of white there as in the bird picture at the top of this page, which I believe to be of the minima subspecies.

Cackling Goose (ignoring the subspecies) differs from Canada Goose mainly in its small size--Cackling Goose may be very small, about the size of a large duck, while Canada Goose is of the size we more typically associate with geese. There are other differences, however. Cackling Goose has a very short neck in proportion to its body, the breast is usually (but not necessarily) about the same color as the body, and there is often a suggestion of a white ring at the base of the black neck (most pronounced in the Aleutian subspecies). The bill is proportionately smaller than in Canada Goose. Cackling Goose breeds in the northwest extremes of Alaska and in northwest Canada. Canada Goose, meanwhile breeds throughout Canada, as far east as the Atlantic coast, and also as far south as northern Idaho and Montana.

May be difficult to distinguish from Canada Goose in flight. Size is likely to be the main feature giving clues, but the white neck band of the Aleutian subspecies may be visible. Inexperienced birders will sometimes mistake Brants (photo at left) for Cackling Goose (or Canada Goose), but Brant is a small goose with a black head, neck, and breast, with a stripy white patch at the neck rather than at the chin, and all-black wings. Cackling Goose and Canada Goose have brown wings. Note that, seen in flight from the rear, Brants have a white V-shaped marking on the rump--similar to the white markings at the rump of Cackling Goose and Canada Goose. Brants are most common in Sonoma County at Bodega Bay, where flocks of thousands are sometimes present in winter. They are marine geese, usually at the coast or offshore. Cackling Goose is rarely present in salt water habitats. Most commonly seen as solitary birds among Canada Geese at farm ponds and other freshwater bodies of water.  

Further reading: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, pg. 24; Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pg. 40 (under Canada Goose); Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 18; Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, pg. 70 (under Canada Goose); Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, pg. 28 (under Canada Goose); Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, pg. 35.

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Cackling Goose




© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For comparison: Canada Goose. A Canada goose individual with a clear white band at the base of the black neck (often associated with Cackling Goose), but all other features point to Canada Goose

Cackling Goose, Roberts Lake Park, Rohnert Park, December 16, 2011

Cackling Goose, Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, February 24. 2013

Cackling Goose

Branta hutchinsii

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County