The snow goose (Chen caerulescens) comes in two morphs or color varieties. The white morph is snowy white with black wingtips. The adult blue morph has a white head, neck, underparts, and tail coverts, but is otherwise mostly gray-brown. The immature blue morph is similar, but with a brownish head. A few snow geese are somewhere in between the two forms.
Both types of snow geese are stocky with short necks and stubby bills. The bill also has a distinctive black edge called the “grin patch.” The bill and legs of adults are pink; those of immature geese are dark.
Snow geese sometimes have rusty stains on their heads and necks from dabbling in iron-rich waters.
Best Field Marks
- White body and black wingtips for white morph.
- Contrasting white head and neck for adult blue morph.
The snow goose is sometimes described as one of the noisiest waterfowl in the world. Both males and females make a nasal, high-pitched kowk or kow-luk on the slightest pretext. When the whole flock calls in chorus, the result is deafening.
Two other sounds that the snow goose makes are the gutteral feeding call (gah) and the loud alarm call (kaah-ahh).
Distribution & Occurrence
The snow goose is a migrant and winter resident in Kansas, typically arriving in October. In most parts of the state, it only pauses to rest for a week or two, but there are a few places where it stops for the whole winter, such as Quivira Wildlife Refuge and a number of suitable habitats along the Kansas–Missouri state line. There snow geese congregate in the hundreds of thousands!
What counts as a suitable habitat for a snow goose? For one thing there must be open water. For another thing there must be grain fields to feed in. These conditions are harder to come by in the western part of Kansas, so most of the migrating snow geese end up in the eastern half of the state.
In March the snow goose is off again, flying northward as the snow melts. It spends the summer nesting in northern Canada.
The social nature of snow geese is their most outstanding trait. They travel in enormous flocks, either in tight bunches or in long, rippling lines, earning them the name of “wavies.” How so many birds can coordinate their movements with such precision is a mystery, but snow geese can perform amazingly intricate maneuvers in the air. A large flock makes a roar that has been compared to the sound of a tornado.
Snow geese spend their nights at wetlands sleeping on the water. During the day, they take off to search farm fields for grain. Sorghum and winter wheat make up a significant portion of the diet of these vegetarian geese, but they will also nibble at roots, grass, berries, and aquatic plants.
Birdwatchers are not too likely to be interested in attracting snow geese. They occur in such large flocks that they are sometimes considered public nuisances.
Hunters use large numbers of decoys to attract the attention of passing flocks. They also use high-pitched calls that mimic the sounds of snow geese.
The Ross’s goose can be extremely confusing because it is basically just a miniature version of the snow goose. Size and proportion are the keys to distinguishing the two, but it can take some practice to learn the difference. Observing the two side-by-side in nature is the best way to master the identification. Comparing photos can also help.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
Only the immature blue morph snow goose is likely to cause confusion with the greater white-fronted goose. If you can get a good look at the feet and bill, however, you can identify the bird with reasonable confidence. The blue morph snow goose has dark legs and a dark bill, while the greater white-Fronted goose has orange legs and a pink bill. The greater white-fronted goose also has a mottled belly and white around its bill, two characteristics that snow geese lack.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.