The Canada goose is a well-known presence across Sonoma County, and often has a poor reputation on golf courses and in parks. But is there more to this assertive bird than meets the eye?
People come to Safari West for close encounters with exotic African wildlife, but there is one less exotic species that we can almost guarantee you will see during your visit: the Canada goose. You don’t need to visit Safari West to see Canada geese—they are so common in Sonoma County that many consider them to be pests due to their thunderous honking, ceaseless droppings, and antagonistic behavior. Canada geese do often migrate, but Sonoma County seems to have mild enough winters and enough food availability that many Canada geese are permanent residents here. As such, come to Safari West and you can expect to see an incessantly honking black and white head at some point on your tour.
As an institution that houses exotic animals on native lands, some amount of interaction between Safari West animals and local animals is bound to happen. Our guides often call the Canada geese here “freeloaders”, as they take advantage of the safety and food that Safari West animals enjoy. But, there are a few unique geese whose behavior has made them staff and guest favorites here. We want to share a few stories of how these assertive birds have ingratiated themselves into our hearts.
Last summer, one of our guides noticed that a few very young wild goslings had wandered into the flamingo habitat. Most wandered back out within a few days, but one stayed behind. Almost a year later, that Canada goose still lives with our flamingo flock. Our guides have seen flamingos preening this goose (the bird version of grooming), and he can often be seen standing on unused flamingo nests or relaxing in the middle of dozens of flamingos. Our guide Dano jokingly refers to him as a “flamingoose”, and our animal caregivers named him Gilbert. In the last few weeks, the migratory and resident Canada geese at Safari West have started to lay eggs and rear their young, and we have been watching Gilbert to see if he rejoins these groups. So far, he is staying put.
Another unique goose can often be found out in our gazelle pasture habitat, among giraffes and antelope. This goose looks similar to a Canada goose, but has a dirty orange beak and legs instead of black, as well as a lighter body and neck. She is a hybrid goose—half canada goose, half domestic goose. Her origin is similar to Gilbert’s but takes his story a step further. Sometimes waterfowl like geese will become friendly with other species of waterfowl and will lay their eggs in other waterfowl nests instead of making their own nest, an act known as “interspecific nest parasitism”. At some point, a domestic goose probably laid an egg in a Canada goose nest. That egg hatched out into a baby domestic goose that was raised by Canada geese and thought it was a Canada goose. As it matured, it was interested in Canada geese, rather than other domestic geese. It found a Canada goose partner, laid some eggs, and a hybrid was born.
A few of these hybrids have been seen at Safari West for over 15 years, but for the last five years or so, only one has continuously returned here. Each year, she selects a pair of Canada geese that have newly hatched goslings and follows them around, helping to rear and protect the new babies until they fledge. After that, she will often pick a new family with goslings and repeat the process. After watching these interactions for a few years, our guide manager Leslie affectionately dubbed her “Granny Goose”, and the name stuck. Each year, I smile when I hear a tour guide excitedly announcing over the radio that Granny Goose has once again returned to Safari West, and has been seen with a new family of Canada geese.
With all of the beautiful, charismatic African wildlife at Safari West, why are some of us drawn to stories about Canada geese? I think that we are interested in finding empathy in unexpected places. In some small ways, we see pieces of our own lives in the stories of these geese. Being accepted into a group where it doesn’t seem like we would belong, or finding fulfillment by caring for people or animals outside of our immediate family—these are things many of us can relate to. If we can find some common ground with an animal like the Canada goose, maybe the world isn’t quite as fractured as it seems.
Photos by Mark Pressler & Dano Blanchard