The Canada Goose in Vancouver: Photos and Facts

I love hearing the honks of Canada geese as they fly overhead and looking up to see their V formation in the sky. The sound always reminds me of the Canadian wilderness. In reality, the birds are found in the United States and Northern Mexico as well as Canada and are seen in cities and towns and well as wild places. Canada geese can be found at any time of the year in the Vancouver area.

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Canada geese that I photographed in Stanley Park in summer

Physical Appearance and Identification Problems

The Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is an attractive bird. Its neck is long, thin, and black. Its head is black, too, except for the white patch on each side of its face. The two patches are joined by a white “chinstrap” under the head. The bird’s upper body is brown to grey. Its underside is usually paler and changes to white at the back of the body. Males and females look similar.

Most of the birds in the photo above are clearly Canada geese. It might surprise some people to know that it’s not always easy to identify the birds, at least in the Vancouver area, due to the presence of a similar bird. The cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) was once classified as a subspecies of the Canada goose but is now considered to be a separate species. It resembles a Canada goose in appearance but is smaller and has a shorter and thicker neck, as shown in the photo below.

Unfortunately for people who want a definite identification of the bird that they are observing, the cackling goose hybridizes with the Canada Goose, producing birds with intermediate features. In addition, some subspecies of the Canada goose are smaller than others. Another confusing factor is that the apparent length of a Canada goose’s neck varies according to what it’s doing. These points can sometimes make identification of a bird difficult.

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A cackling goose photo taken by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 license

Habitat and Diet

The Canada goose is found in water of different types, wetlands, and grain fields. Some birds frequent grass in urban areas. A flock of geese on an urban playing field can be an interesting sight but can also be annoying because of the droppings that are produced. The birds eat aquatic plants, grass, grain, and small animals.

The first two Canada Geese photos in this post show the birds at Stanley Park, a large and very popular area in Vancouver. The park is located by the ocean. As can be seen, the geese in Vancouver don’t seem to mind being in and near sea water at all. I took the photo of the gosling at John Hendry Park, which contains a small lake (Trout Lake) as well as grassy and treed areas. The goslings were very confident and came close to me as they fed on grass. Their parents were watching carefully, though.

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A Canada goose that I photographed while he or she was preening on a Stanley Park beach

Reproduction

Canada geese stay in flocks until the mating season. They mate for life. If one of the birds dies, however, the other one will likely choose a new mate.  The nest is a mound of vegetation and is constructed near water. The female incubates the eggs and the male protects her. The clutch generally consists of four to seven eggs. Incubation takes about a month.

Once the goslings are born, they stay with their parents for some time as they grow. They don’t leave to start independent lives until the next spring. The birds are said to have a lifespan of up to twenty-four years.

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A gosling at John Hendry Park

Observing the Birds

The Canada Geese in my area are used to people and don’t seem to mind our presence as long as we stay at a respectful distance. They usually move away if humans get too close, however. Some birds are more confident than others or more confident in certain places.

I would have thought that a pair of geese with goslings would be especially cautious. They probably are in many places, but in certain spots in my part of the world this is a good time to observe the birds closely.

Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park is a popular spot for bird watchers and for people who like to feed birds (hopefully with healthy food). The Canada Geese that choose to appear here with their goslings seem quite content to have people approach them to take photographs. They continue to graze by the lagoon as the photos are taken, but even here a parent stops grazing occasionally and lifts a watchful eye.

Canada geese and cackling geese are two of my favourite birds to observe. I don’t mind if a flock is composed entirely of Canada geese, entirely of cackling geese, or a mixture of species and hybrids. They are interesting animals.

A Bill Reid Whale Sculpture and Killer Whales in Captivity

Bill Reid (1920-1998) was a popular and respected British Columbian sculptor and goldsmith. His mother was a member of the Haida Nation and his father was American. Bill didn’t begin exploring his Haida roots until he was an adult. His discoveries influenced much of his work.

“Chief of the Undersea World” is a sculpture of a killer whale designed by Bill Reid and placed outside the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park. The facility contained killer whales when the sculpture was placed in position. Skana—a whale that once lived at the aquarium——had the same name as the mythical being represented by the sculpture. The keeping of whales in captivity has been a contentious issue in Vancouver but appears to be more-or-less resolved

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Chief of the Undersea World; photo by Linda Crampton

Chief of the Undersea World

Bill Reid’s whale sculpture is 5.5 metres high and is made of bronze. Though Bill designed the whale and created a small boxwood model of it, other people were involved in creating the actual sculpture. Unfortunately, by the time of its creation, Bill had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and needed some help.

The sculpture was created in 1983 and unveiled in front of the aquarium on June 2nd, 1984. It was donated by Jim and Isabel Graham, who were the official owners of the sculpture at that time. The whale stands in a reflecting pool of water. The plaque beneath it contains the following inscription.

Skana – The Killer Whale known by the Haida to be chief of the world below the sea who from his great house raised the storms of the winter and brought calm to the seas of summer. He governed the mystical cycle of the salmon and was keeper of all the oceans (sic) living treasure.

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The sculpture’s location outside the aquarium; photo by Linda Crampton

History of Killer Whales at the Vancouver Aquarium

Killer whales have the scientific name Orcinus orca and are sometimes known as orcas. The history of orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium is sad, but the story has become happier over time. The aquarium no longer keeps whales in captivity. In addition, it’s very likely that a law will soon pass prohibiting the keeping of any cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity in Canada.

Moby Doll was the first orca exhibited by the Vancouver Aquarium and the first one anywhere that was displayed to the public while in captivity. He was shown in a pen at Jericho Beach in Vancouver in 1964 and died in the same year 86 days later.

Skana and Hyak were the next orcas to arrive at the aquarium. They lived in the main facility in Stanley Park. Skana was captured in the wild in 1967 and was thought to be around six years old at the time. She died in 1980 from an infection but was still remembered by the public when Bill Reid created his sculpture. Hyak joined Skana in 1968 and died in 1991.

A female named Bjossa and a male named Finna were the last orcas to arrive at the aquarium. They were captured in 1980 and reached the facility shortly after Skana’s death. They produced calves, which didn’t live for long. Finna died in 1997. In 2000, the aquarium announced that it would no longer keep killer whales in captivity (though it still had beluga whales) and Bjossa was sent to SeaWorld San Diego in the United States. She died from a respiratory illness in 2001.

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Two killer whales or orcas; public domain photo by skeeze

Some Good News in 2018

In January, 2018, the aquarium voluntarily announced that they would no longer keep cetaceans in captivity. There are two exceptions to this rule. One is Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin with flippers that were partially amputated in an unknown event before she arrived at the aquarium. The injuries can be seen in the photo below.  Helen has been deemed unreleasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Her situation is difficult. She should have companions, but she isn’t young and the journey to another facility could be dangerous.

The other exception is cetaceans that are rescued. The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is part of the aquarium but is located outside of Stanley Park. The centre cares for stranded marine mammals and then releases them into the wild. The problem is what to do with any rescued animals that are deemed unreleasable once they recover as much as possible from their injuries. They might be kept off-exhibit, but they may need to be transferred to a facility in another country if the law described below passes. Sea pens are sometimes suggested as intermediate habitats between life in a tank and life in the wild and might be acceptable under the new legislation.

In October, 2018, a bill prohibiting the keeping of cetaceans in captivity was passed by the Canadian Senate. The bill has to be passed by the House of Commons in order to become law, but this is expected to happen. The legislation will apply not only to the Vancouver Aquarium, which has voluntarily passed its own “law”.  Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, houses captive cetaceans and appears to be the main target of the new legislation. It’s possible that the law will allow for gradual changes in aquariums instead of immediate and complete changes, which could be helpful for Helen.

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This is a photograph of Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin. I took the photo while she was in her shallow tank. She also has a deeper one.

Personal Observations and Thoughts

I’ve lived in the Greater Vancouver area for a long time and have seen some of the changes at the aquarium. When I first visited the facility when Skana and Hyak were alive, the whales that lived there performed the typical behaviours used to entertain the public at the time, including high leaps out of the water. Over time, the cetacean shows were gradually toned down and became more educational. The whales and dolphins eventually performed relatively simple behaviours, such as displaying a flipper, their caudal fins (or tail), or their belly as the announcer described their external anatomy and then demonstrating their swimming ability.

I lived here when the aquarium announced when it would no longer catch cetaceans in the wild but only obtain them from other institutions, then said that they would no longer house killer whales, and finally said they would no longer house any cetaceans at all. The changes have been gradual but significant.

It’s true that getting a close view of a cetacean is educational and fascinating and that captive animals can help wildlife researchers learn more about their species. In my opinion, this isn’t a justification for keeping cetaceans in captivity. They are intelligent beings that roam for long distances in their natural habitat and often live with many others of their kind. Keeping them captive in a small tank with little to do is a horrible fate for them to face.

References

The Vancouver Aquarium celebrates 60 years from the Vancouver Sun

Orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium from the Orca Network

Creek Life: A Pair of Mallards and Facts About the Ducks

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A male and female mallard

I live near several creeks that drain off a nearby mountain. I often see one or two mallards in a particular part of the creek system. I sometimes discover that when I see only one (generally the male), the other is hiding on the bank. In March a few years ago, I found the handsome pair shown in my first two photos.

The mallard has the scientific name Anas platyrhynchos. It’s a common duck in southwestern British Columbia. The bird is found in water and wetlands and is classified as a dabbling duck. It tips its head into the water and its tail into the air to reach the aquatic plants and small animals that it eats. It gets some of its food on land, however. In park ponds, it’s happy to accept food offerings from humans. The bird usually gathers in flocks but may be seen in pairs during the breeding season.

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The male’s curly black “tail” can be seen in this photo.

Many people would probably consider the male to be the most attractive member of the pair. He has a glossy green head, a yellow bill, a narrow white “necklace”, and a dark brown chest. He also has a curly black feathers at the end of his body above his tail.

The female has mottled brown plumage and a duller bill than the male. Both genders have orange legs and a patch of blue feathers on their wings called a speculum. The speculum is often outlined with white and black and is sometimes visible when the wings are folded, as in the female in the photos above.

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My sister took this photo of a mallard duckling in a botanical garden in Vancouver.

The breeding season for the ducks starts in late March where I live. The two adults in my photos were almost certainly a breeding pair. Researchers say that a bird choses its partner in the fall while the ducks are still in a flock, long before the breeding season begins.

The male stays with the female as the pair search for a nesting site. The female constructs the nest on the ground in a hidden area near the water. The male remains with her for a short while after the eggs are laid, but at some point during the incubation he leaves. The clutch size varies considerably. The eggs hatch in around thirty days and the youngsters grow quickly. They fledge and become independent around fifty to sixty days after hatching.

At the end of the breeding season, the adults lose their flight feathers. During this stage they are said to be in their eclipse plumage and the male looks much like a female. The period lasts for three or four weeks. Some species of ducks are secretive during this potentially dangerous stage in their lives because they can’t fly away from predators. I often see mallards in eclipse in flocks, though.

After the breeding season and when the ducklings have matured, the birds stay in a flock at least until the following March. Courtship displays begin in the fall. The birds become very active and perform a wide variety of ritualistic behaviours, which are often easily observed. They are always interesting to watch.

I photographed the flock below in February at a lake fed by one of my local creeks. People often sit on the benches to feed the birds seeds. The animals are quite confident  and frequently come close to the people who are feeding them.

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The bench where people often sit to admire or feed the ducks.

Many other interesting facts about the birds have been discovered. For example:

  • The mallard gave rise to many breeds of domestic ducks.
  • Mallards easily hybridize with some other duck species.
  • The females quack but the males don’t. Instead, they produce a sound that resembles a rasp.
  • The female is known for her “decrescendo call.” She gives a series of quacks, started with the highest pitched and loudest one and ending with the lowest pitched and softest one.
  • According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, researchers have discovered that mallards can fly up to an estimated fifty-five miles an hour.

Mallards have been the most common ducks in my environment everywhere that I’ve lived on two different continents. Despite this fact, scientists are still learning more about them. As I often say, nature is always fascinating.