The snow goose - a hardy, beautiful, long distance migratory bird - is rare in Chautauqua County, but occasionally is seen at the Jamestown Audubon Society Sanctuary, according to one of the naturalists on the Audubon staff.
More than 100,000 pass through central New York during migration to breeding grounds in the Arctic from wintering locations on Chesapeake Bay. Millions more pass through the Pacific, Missouri River and Mississippi River flyway routes during migration. I recently returned from a short trip to find and hunt snow geese in Missouri. I love birds and bird watching, so my desire to hunt game birds is a behavior I ponder.
The snow goose is smaller than the familiar Canada goose. The adult has two color patterns: one is pure white with black wing tips and the other, called a ''blue morph,'' has a gray-blue body and white face. This color-variation phenomenon is similar to the color variation in Labrador retriever dogs which can be black, golden or chocolate.
Snow geese in flight over a Missouri corn field, taken from a hunting blind in February.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
Snow geese populations have increased dramatically along the Atlantic flyway from 50,000 in 1960 to 1.4 million in 2009 due to greater access to food sources of waste grain in farmer's fields on the wintering grounds adjacent to Chesapeake Bay. Similar access to grain on large agriculture fields in Texas, California and the Gulf states led to increased winter survival and health allowing a momentous growth of snow geese populations in North America. The snow goose is a cold-weather goose nesting high in the Arctic on tundra in northern Canada to Siberia. In winter, the female adds 50 percent more fat under her skin to provide calories to fly 3,000 miles north, lay three to five eggs, and incubate them for 22 to 25 days never leaving the nest to feed. She loses flight feathers growing new ones for the migration south when ice returns to the Arctic. Baby snow geese, called goslings, can walk, feed and swim on their own but both parents protect them from predators like the Arctic fox, gulls and ravens. During the molt, the adult geese are flightless for about six weeks, which coincides with the time for goslings to grow flight feathers. Nesting in colonies of 1,000 nests per square mile allows neighboring geese to drive away predators that feed on eggs and goslings. Nesting near snowy owls is more successful because predators stay away from the geese hoping to avoid discovery by the owl. Still a significant number of young die from predation and sickness. An adult may live four to 20 years. Males and females are thought to form pair bonds for life. Young stay with their parents through the second year and breed by the third year of life. Snow geese have a serrated bill like a bread knife which tears tubers and roots of tundra plants like bulrushes, cattails, salt grass and reeds.
Tundra vegetation is being over grazed by excessive number of snow geese; thereby destroying tundra habitat for other birds, mammals and plants, upsetting the balance of nature. Wildlife managers want to reduce snow geese populations, but unlimited daily harvest quotas for hunters have failed to produce a decline. The snow goose, a wily bird, migrates at 1,000 feet and often out of sight and, therefore, out of shotgun range. Electronic goose calls and spreads of 400 to 600 decoys in a farmer's field may lure them into shotgun range.
Environmentalists may ask, ''why not let nature control the population by survival of the fittest?'' This may be an option, but as food becomes scarce in the Arctic, some geese will starve or rear fewer young as well as destroy habitat for other animals. I reconcile hunting birds for enjoyment as a shooting sport, knowledge the geese will be eaten, realization of the abundance of snow geese and some feathers I plucked will become a small pillow.
The sight and sound of migrating geese is a beautiful, inspiring sight capable of helping us for a moment forget our troubles and concerns.