From Alaska to New Mexico: 
Following the Journey of Three Cackling Geese 

Join us for the journey of three cackling geese...

You may be familiar with Canada geese, the large black-necked, brown-bodied geese often seen in parks and on golf courses. But did you know that there is another smaller species of goose that looks similar to the Canada goose? These are called cackling geese because their higher-pitched honking sounds a bit like they are laughing. As you can see in the following picture, they have the familiar white chin bar of a Canada goose, but with a shorter neck, rounder head, and smaller bill that makes them look more duck-like. 

A cackling goose swims in water. Photo by Laurel Ladwig


Cackling geese spend the summer in northern Canada and Alaska, flying south in the fall to spend the winter in warmer parts of the United States. Some of them nest on the coastal plain tundra of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even during the summer in Alaska, the weather is cold and windy, and predators abound, so the eggs must be covered with down feathers to help keep them warm and hidden from foxes and gulls.

Wind blows through clumps of down goose feathers stuck in the grass. Video by Lissa Hupp/USFWS


Cackling geese usually mate for life. While nesting, females incubate the 3 to 6 egg clutch, while the male stands guard nearby. Here's a peek at the cozy eggs inside.

Five cackling goose eggs lie in a ground nest made of down. Video by Lisa Hupp/ USFWS



In early fall, once the goslings have hatched and learned to fly, the cackling geese gather in flocks to migrate south to warmer places. Biologists at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wanted to learn more about where the geese that breed on the Refuge go to spend the winter. They decided to put radio collars on several of the geese to track where they traveled. First, they had to safely catch the geese using a special kind of nest trap – a bow net.

Scientists fold back half of an bow trap to set it, directly over a nest of cackling goose eggs. Video by Lisa Hupp/USFWS


Once trapped, the goose gets a checkup from the biologist.

Biologist, sitting on the ground, holds a cackling goose across his lap, with one hand across its body and another on its wing. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS


Each goose is carefully measured to determine how it compares to cackling geese that breed in other areas.

A biologist measures the length from the back of the goose's head to the tip of its beak using calipers. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS


In the next photo you can see the collar being placed around the cackling goose's neck. The GPS-enabled collars can track the pathways of the geese as they migrate. The collars collect and store location data once every 15-120 minutes (depending on device) and transmit the information when the birds come near any cell phone towers, allowing the biologists, and us, to follow their journey.

Two biologists work together to put a radio collar on the goose. One biologist holds the goose, with its head folded back toward its body, while the other biologist uses pliers to hold the ends of the collar together while the epoxy on it dries. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS


Once the collar is safely and comfortably in place, the goose is released to begin its journey south to warmer lands. 

A biologist sits, holding a collared cackling goose with both arms. She leans forward and releases the goose, which flies off across the tundra and a wetland. Video by Lisa Hupp/ USFWS


Cackling geese migrate to areas all over the west coast of the United States, so the biologists were interested to see where the geese breeding on the western edge of Arctic NWR would go. Three of the collars successfully communicated data from the entire migratory journey south. The scientists were surprised to find all three journeyed to Albuquerque, New Mexico to winter. On the map, you can see the journey of the geese from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, south through Canada along the east side of the Rocky Mountains, all the way to New Mexico.

Blue arrows and squares, across a map of North America, denote GPS locations of  cackling geese as they migrated from Alaska to Albuquerque, NM. USFWS unpublished data


This next map shows the movements of 2 of the geese after they arrived in the Albuquerque area. The geese spent time at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (the green area on the map) just south of the city, in farm fields to the west of the Refuge, and along the Rio Grande that flows through the city. These areas provide spaces for the cackling geese to rest, water to drink and plants to eat.

Blue squares and purple lines show locations and travel of a cackling goose in the South Valley of Albuquerque, NM, with stops along the Rio Grande, Valle de Oro NWR, and multiple locations along the west mesa. USFWS Unpublished data


One of the cackling geese spent a lot of time on the athletic fields at West Mesa High School in Albuquerque, as seen on the next map. Cackling geese eat tender grass shoots such as those found in watered sports fields, parks, and golf courses, so those are good places to look for their flocks.

Blue squares indicate GPS locations of a cackling goose on athletic fields at West Mesa High School. USFWS Unpublished data.


In this next picture, taken at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, you can see two species of geese that spend winter days on the Refuge. The smaller geese you see are cackling geese, while the larger, longer-necked ones are Canada geese.

Cackling geese and Canada geese stand in a grassy field at Valle de Oro NWR, with industrial buildings, a mesa, and the Sandia Mountains behind them. Image by Catherine Leicht/USFWS.


When spring arrives, the cackling geese say goodbye to Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and the Albuquerque area, and head north to Alaska to nest and raise their families on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They will return to Albuquerque the next winter. 

A flock of cackling and Canada geese fly north over the Rio Grande, along a bank lined with cottonwood, Russian olive, salt cedar and grasses. Photo by Adam Kludt/USFWS


There are multiple things you can do to help support cackling geese and the scientists working to learn more about their migratory journeys. The GPS collar project will be continuing for several more years, so please keep a lookout around Albuquerque for these birds. Like many other birds scientists wish to track, most of these geese also carry bands on their legs. These bands rely on people and scientists to help track those bands to gather information on their locations. If you see a goose or any other bird with a colored band on its neck or leg, you can report the color and number at www.reportband.gov. This will help scientists tracking the migration journeys of birds, and the scientists will send you information about that bird.

You can also participate in community science projects to help scientists understand when different bird species arrive at their migratory rest stops along their "flyways," or the four main routes used by birds migrating between their summer and wintering grounds in the Americas. Examples of community science projects you can use to post about migrating and resident bird sightings include eBird and iNaturalist.

Most importantly, if you see geese in a field or along the river, don't disturb them. They need to eat and rest to prepare for the long flight back to Alaska in the spring.

Finally, be sure to visit and support our system of National Wildlife Refuges and Hatcheries, which provide hunting, fishing, birding, and other recreation and learning opportunities for us as well as food and shelter for wildlife like these cackling geese.

Visit www.fws.gov/refuges/ to learn about National Wildlife Refuges near you and how you can get involved.

To learn more about Valle de Oro NWR, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/valle_de_oro/ or find us on Facebook or Instagram.

To learn more about Arctic NWR visit www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/ or find them on Facebook.

Visitors participate in a birding tour and observe migratory birds during the fall at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Aryn LaBrake