Cackling Geese at WildCare

Unusual geese get a second chance at WildCare

When a rescuer said that the Canada Goose she’d found had been hit and rolled by not just one but two cars, WildCare Medical Staff knew to expect a large bird, probably with significant injuries.

The bird that arrived at the Wildlife Hospital, however, was small, with a head and beak that were much more delicate than a Canada Goose’s. In addition, unlike the imperturbable Canada Geese we see in our parks and playing fields, this bird was shy and very wild.

After treating (and dodging the bites from) hundreds of Canada Geese, WildCare’s Medical Staff knew that this bird, and another admitted soon after from Mendocino, were Cackling Geese, a type of goose reclassified as its own species in 2004.

Upon intake, WildCare Medical Staff did a full physical exam of the bird. Astonishingly, no broken bones were found… it’s possible the goose’s small stature saved him from greater injury. However the bird was very emaciated.

A full radiograph work-up had to be delayed until the bird, panting with stress, was more stable, but x-rays the next day confirmed no broken bones. The goose was treated for abrasions, lacerations and a cracked beak and was given medications for pain and inflammation. Then he was placed on WildCare’s Emaciation Protocol.

When an animal (or a human!) is starving, introducing solid food too quickly will do more harm than good. The digestive system is simply not able to accept solids, and the wrong food can kill the patient. Instead, emaciated animals like these geese receive regular tube-feedings of a nutrient-rich, but easily digestible, slurry.

The birds were placed in heated incubators during this period, which is a very important part of the treatment for emaciation. Every ounce of energy is needed for recovery. By providing supplemental heat, we can ensure that these patients are spending their energy on gaining weight instead of trying to keep themselves warm.

After several days of tube-feeding, soft foods are introduced, and eventually the bird returns to a mixed diet of regular foods (in the Wildlife Hospital, our goose patients thrive on Romaine lettuce, mealworms and grains.)

Both of these geese were likely hit by cars. The bird rescued in Mendocino (left) was also emaciated when he was found, and his wing was injured. Both birds are recovering well. Photo by Alison Hermance

After several days of tube feeding, this goose and the other Cackling Goose that had been admitted to the hospital are recovering well, and gaining weight.

These Cackling Geese will remain in an intensive care ward at WildCare until they have built up enough strength, gained enough weight and their bloodwork shows they have recovered from their emaciation. Then they will move to a larger aviary where they will build up their flight muscles and endurance in preparation for release.

How to Identify a Cackling Goose

The bird on the left is a Canada Goose and the one on the right is a Cackling Goose. Photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In addition to their significantly smaller size, these geese differ in their breeding territory and habits from their larger counterparts.

Cackling Geese breed farther north and west of the usual habitat of Canada Geese, in coastal Alaska and Arctic Canada. Requiring more specialized nesting habitat than Canada Geese, they nest in coastal marshes, along tundra ponds and streams, and on steep turf slopes above rocky shores.

Although not rare in their habitual range, Cackling Geese are unusual at WildCare— we have only admitted seven of them in the past dozen years. And we don’t know why these birds’ migration route took them so far away from their normal wintering grounds in California’s Central Valley.

Until 2004, Cackling Geese were considered a subspecies of the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). But work on genetic differences found the Cackling Goose and the other three smallest forms of the Branta genus to be very different. Size is one difference between the two species, although a small Canada Goose might not be that different in size from a large Cackling Goose. Cackling Geese have shorter necks, more rounded heads, distinctly shorter beaks and their wings are longer in proportion to their bodies.

You can also tell these geese apart from their calls– Canada Geese have a deep honking call, while Cackling Geese tend to have higher-pitched calls, and of course, they cackle.

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