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Lucky geese get to enjoy southern warmth

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Canada Geese relax in the warm Friday morning heat near the entrance of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre.

PHOTO BY WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Canada Geese relax in the warm Friday morning heat near the entrance of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre. Photo Store Photo Store

The geese are back in full force. You have probably noticed them at the corner of Lagimodiere Boulevard and Regent Avenue, waddling around, eating and basking in the sunlight.

Aaah, the life! As the leaves turn and the weather cools down, you know it is inevitable — the geese fly south for the winter.

But where do they go?

According to Jacques Bourgeois at Oak Hammock Marsh, several hundreds of Canada geese live in Winnipeg and surrounding areas. Migration starts at the beginning of September when the ground begins to freeze and continues until the first week of October. Geese seek warmer climates for survival reasons because food they eat — insects, roots, stems, grain — is covered by snow.    

Before migration, Canada geese need to build up fat reserves to make the long trip.  This amounts to 10% of their body weight, or half a pound of grain a day.  This is especially true for females in the spring, as they need enough fat to make the migration, produce a clutch of eggs and survive the incubation period with little food.

Bourgeois states that Canada geese experience "zugunruhe, a German word for migratory restlessness".

Essentially a hormone kicks in and tells their bodies it is time to get going, kind of like the winter itch some of us get after a solid week of -30 C weather. Depending on the species, the Canadian geese fly to different parts of the continent. The Interlake population that lives between Gypsumville and Grand Rapids will travel to Rochester, Minn.

The cackling geese species of the Churchill eastern prairies population, which has between 3,000 and 5,000 members, will go south the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Snow geese will fly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, while some ducks go as far away as Argentina and Brazil. In general, the need to find food determines the destination.

One of the surest signs that the season is changing is the familiar V-shaped flock of Canada geese honking away as they fly overhead for migration.  Many years ago, people thought the reason for flying in formation was for aerodynamics, to make it smoother and less tiring for the birds. Scientists now believe it is to allow for better communication and visual checks of the young, since they fly in families. While many people only hear the trademark ‘honk’ when geese make noise, there is evidence that Canada geese can communicate with different sounds.

Scientists believe that there are as many as 13 different Canada goose calls for things like greetings, warnings and contentment.

The trip to the wintering grounds is a quick one — scientists have tracked geese that have flown up to 1,000 km in one day.

Depending on the species, geese may only stop for a rest once in the middle of the trip. Elders, or the most experienced members of the flock determine when and where they stop. By contrast, during spring migration, geese make several stops to feed and rest before reaching their breeding grounds.

Sadly, 70% of the Canadian geese that migrate will not survive the journey. This is because of reasons such as exhaustion, starvation and predators. The tough birds that do return get to enjoy our warm summers and beautiful prairie landscape.

For more information about the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, click www.oakhammockmarsh.ca.    

Charlene Kroll is a community correspondent for North Kildonan. She can be contacted at krollcharlene@gmail.com

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