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Earth Notes: The Epic Migrations of Snow Geese

Michael Collier

Every winter, what sounds like a pack of baying hounds fills the air at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. It’s not dogs, though, but birds—snow geese by the thousands, making loud, nasal, single-syllable honks.

And while in flight, these geese issue continuous shrill cries and high-pitched quacks.

Watching the huge flocks lift off or land, visitors to the refuge may feel like they’re standing inside an enormous – and cacophonous – swirling snow globe.

Strong fliers, these birds make epic migrations to their wintering grounds along the Rio Grande and to other warmer locales. From November to February, they voraciously munch across fallow fields and wetlands—eating grasses, rushes, and shrubs  along with grains and young stems of crops, which make them not so popular among farmers.

Snow geese return to coastal Canadian and Alaskan tundra to breed. Family members use guttural calls to each other while feeding. Parent birds also make quick, quiet notes to round up their goslings, which respond with clear, higher-pitched whistles.

Warming conditions in their arctic breeding grounds may have helped snow geese numbers to skyrocket since the mid-twentieth century. Even with lifting of a hunting ban in 1975, they’re now possibly the most abundant waterfowl species on the continent – and definitely the noisiest! 

Listen to snow geese at the Peter Paul Kellogg, Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

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