Goosey Goosey Gander - Cornwall Geese Wildlife Winter

Synonymous with winter, geese are sociable birds, yet rather shy. Cornwall Life looks at which breeds call Cornwall their home, which visit the county and where we can find them. Words and pictures by David Chapman

There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of a V-shaped skein of geese flying overhead into the sunset on a cold winter's day. In Cornwall there are not the huge numbers of geese associated with the flat arable areas around The Wash or The Fylde for example, but there is quite a wide selection of geese in the winter and some are becoming more numerous.

Geese fly in skeins for two reasons. One is to stay in close contact with each other; by following the bird in front they know that they will all stay on the same flight path. This is also the reason why birds honk continuously, when they fly through thick clouds they could lose visual contact with the birds in front but their calls help to keep them in a tight formation. The other reason for flying in such tight formation is to save energy. The bird at the front creates turbulence around its body and wings, which provides some up-draught of air for the birds behind it, thus saving them energy. This benefit is passed along the chain to the bird at the back. Watch a skein of geese and you will see that the leaders change regularly so that all the birds take their turn at the front.

Geese are social in nature, so as well as flying together they will usually be found in the company of other geese. More birds mean there is always one goose free to look around for danger and as a result geese are very observant and very shy. Geese tend to be found in the middle of large open spaces where they graze vegetable matter and will eat anything from grass and crops to seaweed or eelgrass. Their bills are powerful and have a serrated edge which enables them to uproot the stems of various plants.

Geese have played a part in our folklore. Once they were regarded as fertility symbols, a fact illustrated by the apparently innocent rhyme: ‘Goosey, goosey, gander, whither shall I wander. Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber.’ The breast bone of a goose was once regarded with superstition and attempts were made to use it as an omen of future events.

It may seem cold out there to us but to a goose our climate is positively balmy. The genuine migrant geese that occur in Cornwall during the winter will have bred in the Arctic, either in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia or Siberia, but there are a few species of geese whose origin is less dramatic.

PINK-FOOTED GOOSE, Anser brachyrhynchus

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The pink-footed goose is slightly smaller than the greylag. The pink-footed goose has a short, slim neck and a much shorter beak, giving a petite appearance to their head on quite a plump body. Its head and upper neck are very dark compared to their body plumage and their beak is dark with a pink band.

We only get a handful of pink-footed geese in Cornwall but those that we do see are genuine migrants. They nest in Greenland and Iceland and migrate southwards for the winter; most end up in Norfolk and Lancashire but a few make it to the South West.

CANADA GOOSE, Branta canadensis

The Canada goose is by far the most common goose in Cornwall and is resident throughout the year. It was named after its country of origin and was first imported to Britain as an ornamental goose to adorn our parks in the 17th century and introductions are still taking place in Cornwall today. As a result, this is the least wild of all of our goose species and in some places it will even take bread along with mallards. It is not a migratory species but it is the species that we are most likely to see flying in skeins, often formed by birds flying from roost sites, often on reservoirs, to feeding sites in the morning or the reverse in the late afternoon.

This goose is a big bird with a black neck and white cheek patch which extends under the throat. In fact this white chin strap has, in some parts of the country, led to it being known as the cravat goose!

GREYLAG GOOSE, Anser anser

The greylag goose is the other goose occurring in Cornwall. It does occur as a wild bird in Britain and it is the only native goose that breeds in the UK (though not in Cornwall). However, the situation has been confused by this bird escaping from captive flocks and forming a large population of feral birds across England.

The greylag goose is a large chunky goose with greyish-brown plumage, dull pink legs and a large pinkish-orange bill. It has a thick-set neck with ruffles in its feathers and a large pale head.

BRENT GOOSE, Branta bernicula

This is our smallest goose, at about two feet tall. All adult brent geese have dark necks and backs with a distinctive white fleck around each side of the neck, with a pure white bottom.

This is unlikely to be confused with any other species, but the brent goose has two sub-species with slightly different plumages: the dark-bellied race breeds in Russia, while those with lighter bellies come from North America and Greenland. The brent goose tends to winter along the south and east coasts of Britain and, after the Canada goose, this is our second most common variety and our most common genuine migrant.

Where to see geese in Cornwall

Par Beach pool has a large number of relatively tame Canada geese. They can be found sometimes in huge numbers around some of our reservoirs, including Colliford, Siblyback and Drift. Brent geese are becoming regular along the south coast of Cornwall on the creeks and coast. Last year there were overwintering flocks at Devoran Creek and at Long Rock Beach. The other varieties of geese are far less predictable. The most likely places to see them are the estuaries and reservoirs of the county; the Camel, Hayle, Lynher and Tamar estuaries are probably amongst the best places.  

Other species that we might see in Cornwall include the barnacle and white-fronted geese. Barnacle geese are often kept in private collections so records of these are often of escapees. Once seen regularly in Cornwall, white-fronted geese are now rare.