Volume VII, No. 3, Spring 1980
A SANCTUARY FOR GIANT CANADA GEESE
by John Shore, Photography by Ruth Massey
More than a decade ago a pair of giant Canada geese flew onto a ranch near Seneca, Missouri, because the male was hurt and his mate wouldn't leave him.
"It was in 1968," recalled Walt Davis. "They came in down at the creek below the wellhouse and lived right there." Twelve years later, the original pair of geese still live there, nesting each spring on a little island in the creek. The male is crippled and cannot fly, so they've never left.
"They're a lot of fun," said Walt. "I just go out there and say, 'Come on Hop-a-long,' and he comes right to me."
The original pair, their offspring and other giant Canada geese that use and live in the area have recently been joined by ninety other geese, which have been brought in to the area to start a sanctuary.
The establishment of a sanctuary for the geese was mostly the work of Don Bristow of Joplin, Missouri, a hunter and fisherman who has always been interested in conservation. He heard about the geese that made a permanent home at Five Mile Ranch and was very interested in starting a program to preserve them. He told his friend, Guy Greenwell, Curator of Birds for the National Zoo, Washington, D. C., who was also very interested and helped him establish the sanctuary.
The work of the two men and many others resulted in the stocking of ninety geese at the sanctuary, adding to the eighty-six wild geese which migrated or lived in the area. The Conservation Commission released six geese at different locations within the sanctuary area where local landowners were very cooperative. That was the first release of geese on private land in the state. If the program is successful, Don looks for the program to be expanded to different parts of the state. He also expects to stock more geese at the sanctuary soon.
The Bristow-Greenwell Sanctuary is located in the southwestern part of Missouri, in northern
Newton and southern Jasper counties, covering 155 square miles on the edge of the prairies. It is
an ideal location, having characteristics of the prairies and the Ozarks. The grasslands provide a
year-round food supply which is necessary for the geese, and the many spring-fed creeks and
ponds that will not freeze over in the winter supply ample year-round water supply. As long as
food and water is available for the entire year, the geese will not migrate but willy remain in the
area for life. The sanctuary promises to become an interesting area for the preservation and
growth of the geese population. Don hopes that plans can be made to dam springs and make a
large lake for the benefit of the geese.
"The giant Canada goose, technically Branta Canadensis maximus, is a subspecies of a race of the Canada goose," said Don. "There are twenty-three races from the tiny cackling goose, which is as small as a mallard hen, ranging clear up to the giant Canada.
"The giant Canada was thought to be extinct, and then they were rediscovered in the late 1940's or early 1950's in a lake in the city of Rochester, Minnesota. They built up from that population in Minnesota. Missouri acquired a few birds and put them in the Trimble Wildlife Area in the northwest part of the state because the Missouri area was thought to be in the historical range of the giant Canada before, and is currently the oldest area that has had Canada geese.
"One of the reasons that the bird was thought to be extinct was it was subjected to great losses. It was a large bird which made it very desirable for food purposes, and it has been subject to hunting and predation pressures. Also, in this area the birds take more mortality with the young because of the additional number of snakes and snapping turtles that are in and around our waters."
The range of the giant Canada geese is mainly the midwest. "A number of birds, what's referred to as the eastern prairie population, nest on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay," Don continued.
"The western prairie population nests not far from there, but it's a totally separate nesting area. These birds exist principally in the Mississippi front and central flyways, very little on either coast. The giant Canada for some reason has not adapted well to the east or west coast. They are essentially a prairie, grasslands bird."
The giant Canada is a brownish-gray bird with black neck and head, except for a white cheek and chin. The soft feathers on the underside are a light tint, and the feathers on the wings are darker. The tail is black. A full grown goose can weigh as much as fifteen pounds in the wild. In captivity, the giant Canada can exceed twenty pounds in weight.
The wing span of the giant Canada can reach six feet in width. "When they're coming in at you," exclaimed Don, "when they're landing almost in your face, Lord, they look like a B-47. They're huge!"
The geese's diet consists of grass and surface plants when in the water. "Grass is one of their principal food sources," Don said, "in fact, a preferred food source. They eat a lot of green, young wheat, young corn. They like that real well. As a result they can become a pain in the neck in some agricultural areas if over-concentrated."
The geese eat surface plants by sticking their long necks under water. In the spring they feed on wheat, oats, barley and corn plants and in the fall they feed on the grains. The wild grasses preferred by the giant Canada include lidino, glasswort, bulrush, sea lettuce and brome grass.
The giant Canada mates for life. The mated birds show characteristics similar to much higher forms of life, both geese showing great concern for each other and their young.
"Most of them are three years old when they pair," Don said. "You'll get some pairing as two year olds. You'll get some nesting at two years old. Normally these nests are not very productive. Late two-year-old and early three-year-old are normally when the pairing's done. So long as both members of the pair live, they're mated. However, strangely enough, they don't have any particular age distinction. If a ten year old goose loses her mate, she may pair with a two year old gander."
"The first pair that came here," Walt said, "nested in the same place every year, right where that lone tree is in the water. The first spring they raised eight goslings. The female got washed out of there last year. She was setting there and the water came up and washed her eggs away. She may be setting again now. We never had any more geese to lay. That's the only pair. But don't ever get up close to a nest while one is setting or they'll grab your clothes and sometimes they'll get some hide!" The original pair nests on the ground. Ground nesting is more dangerous because the young goslings are subject to predators such as dogs, cats, snakes and turtles.
Geese will usually return to nest where they learned to fly and nest in the same place every year. The new geese at the sanctuary were released at eight to twelve weeks old. Since they learn to fly after fourteen weeks, they should return to the sanctuary to nest even if they migrate. It is hoped that the new geese will nest in the tubs provided for them, since they are tub imprinted, or raised in tubs themselves. The tubs are attached to a post six feet above the ground, safe from most predators.
Giant Canada geese usually lay about six eggs. Incubation lasts about thirty days with each pair raising about five young in the spring. Geese can be rather productive because of their long life span. "The giant Canada lives from zero days, because he dies as an egg, to twenty-five or twenty-six years under ideal captivity conditions," explained Don. "There have been geese that lived to be forty years old under zoo conditions. Probably eight to twelve years is the age for a pretty old goose in the wild. Of the geese that die, of the geese that take hunter mortality, probably seventy percent of them are in the first year of their life. These geese that survive their first season are pretty smart geese, and as a result, they tend to live a long time. They live with disease, they live with starvation, they live with alligators in the Louisiana swamps and the Texas coast and huge snapping turtles. They live with huge muskies in the north."
Walt Davis said that there has not been much of a problem with people trying to hunt the geese on the sanctuary.
"There has been no hunting on this place since we've had it. No one is supposed to hunt those geese. I'd rather watch them swim!"
By 1986 Don hopes that the giant Canada population at the sanctuary will reach 1,500. Since the giant Canada is non-migratory, it will remain at the sanctuary as long as there is ample food and water supply. Officials of the sanctuary expect to stock more geese again within a year. No hunting is allowed in the area of the sanctuary for five years, or when the flock grows to hunting proportions.
"The goose population there is not large enough yet," Don said. "First I will try to propagate some more giant Canada. They won't be hunted. Somehow that bird got to me. I am a hunter. I believe hunting is an important part of the balance of nature, as they need to take hunting losses. I'm not a preservationist in any sense, but I don't think I could shoot a Canada. I really don't. I just got too involved."
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