A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


In the minds of most people, the quintessential goose. Our most common goose, both on the ground and in the air. No matter how many times I see it, the sight of large numbers of Canada Geese in neat V-formations (often honking loudly, their wing beats audible when flying low) is always thrilling.

Black head and neck with a white "chin strap." Black legs, black tail feathers. Otherwise brown overall, but usually paler at the breast and always white under the tail. Usually in flocks or small groups, typically (but not always) close to water. May be in city parks, large lawns, agricultural fields, or near farm ponds or any other body of fresh water, including water hazards on golf courses. Rarely seen at the coast.

Distinguishable from all other geese (except Cackling Goose--see below) by the white chin strap, but there are complications--complications of two sorts. First, there are a number of widely recognized Canada Goose subspecies (including, until recently, Cackling Goose, now considered a separate species). Second, Canada Geese sometimes hybridize, which results in odd-looking birds that can be puzzling (see photos below). Note also that some Canada Goose individuals may have larger-than-usual white chin straps, often associated with white at the forehead; other birds may vary in the opposite direction, having a much reduced (sometimes nearly absent) chin strap. The American Ornithologists' Union, split Canada Goose and Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) in 2004, but still recognizes seven subspecies of Canada Goose--although most field guides are content to show three or four. Meanwhile, several of the subspecies formerly considered to be subspecies of Canada Goose are now viewed as subspecies of Cackling Goose, and older (pre-2005 or so) field guides will show these under Canada Goose. The American Ornithologists' Union recognizes five Cackling Goose subspecies (for the time being).

Yes, it's very confusing, and I don't have all the answers, but, from the perspective of the casual or even the more serious birder in Sonoma County, it's probably sufficient to accept that locally you’re 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 at the base of the neck--which brings me to the Canada Geese in the top photo on this page: These full-sized birds show a hint of a white band (the bird on the left more prominently). The white band alone is not a reliable way to separate Canada Goose and Cackling Goose.

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 (photo at left), 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. 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. Some birds even breed in the US Rocky Mountains. Note, however, that there are also Canada Goose populations (usually around human habitation) that migrate only short distances--if at all--breeding wherever they happen to live, for example, in Sonoma County.

Hybrids are usually the result of matings between members of local, non-migrating Canada Goose populations and domesticated, non-migrating barnyard geese or the introduced Greylag Goose. Lucchesi Park, in Petaluma, is home to a small group of Greylags, and Canada Goose hybrids show up there. Isolated hybrids may show up anywhere, however, and there may be some hybrid birds in migrating populations. Hybrids typically look vaguely like Canada Goose, but with plumage or other features that are not quite right. Legs are often orange rather than black. The chin strap may disappear or become a vague patch at the throat, the neck may be gray rather than black, the bill may be pink rather than black. Personally, I find these mixes interesting and always wonder about parentage. Most birders, however, treat them with about the same respect that urban pigeons get. Still, they are birds.

May be confused with Greater White-fronted Goose in flight, simply because birds overhead at high altitude are hard to see. If you can see orange legs and feet and a pale bill on a large goose in flight, it may be Greater White-fronted Goose. Greater White-Fronted Goose will also show white at the base of the bill, although that is very hard to see in flight. The white chin strap of Canada Goose often is visible in flight, as is the bird's white rump. When seen flying from directly behind, Canada Goose will show a white band around the rump.

Inexperienced birders will sometimes mistake Brants for Canada Goose, but Brant (Branta bernicla, photo at left) is a smaller 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. Canada Goose (and Cackling Goose) will have brown wings. Brants are most common in Sonoma County at Bodega Bay, where flocks of thousands are sometimes present in the winter. They are marine geese, usually at the coast or offshore. Canada Goose is rarely present in salt water habitats.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 28

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 58

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 35

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 24

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 20

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 26-27

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 58

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 73

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 34

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 46

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 106, 142

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 2-4

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 5

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 62-64

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 18

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 40

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 70

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 13

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 42

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Canada 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.


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

Canada Goose hybrid or simply an individual with atypical face and neck patterning

Canada Goose hybrid (probably with Greater White-fronted Goose, or Greylag Goose)

Canada Goose with chicks about two weeks old

Place to Play Park, Santa Rosa, May 5, 2011

Canada Geese, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, February 23, 2011

Yes, they really do fly like that.

Canada Geese over Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, October 17, 2012

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

Canada Goose

Branta canadensis

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County