Geese are a group of species that fall under the umbrella of wildfowl birds – those that are medium or large in size, have a long neck, short broad bills, short legs and three toes at the front that are joined by webbing. Geese in the UK are generally divided into two groups; the greys such as the Greylag and the black such as the Brent and barnacle geese. But which ones are which?
The Barnacle goose is one of the more instantly recognisable British geese with its creamy white face, black head and breast and white underparts. It is often seen flying around in packs or in long lines of birds accompanied by their noisy barking or yapping calls. They can been seen across the country but in particularly large numbers on the Solway Firth and on Islay in Scotland. They arrive in October from Greenland and stay until March, living on leaves, roots, seeds and plant stems.
The bean goose is a grey goose, though it is browner than many of this group and has a dark head and neck. In breeds across north Asia, Russia and Scandinavia, coming to the UK in small numbers in autumn and winter. They have suffered declining numbers in the last 20 years, thought to be due to human disturbance of their nesting areas, changes in farming practises and direct persecution. The best place to spot them is the Yare Valley in Norfolk as well as near Falkirk in Scotland. Their diet is based on grass, cereals, potatoes and other crops.
The Brent Goose is a small goose, only the size of a Mallard duck with black head and neck and grey-brown back. There is a small neck patch of white feathers on adult birds. They tend to fly in loose flocks, arriving in the UK in October and leaving again in March. Their main habitats are estuaries and salt marshes with the main areas to see them in the Wash, the North Norfolk coastal marshes, the Thames and Essex estuaries and around Chichester and Langstone harbours. There are also colonies in Northern Ireland and Northumberland at Lindisfarne. They feed on vegetation and are particularly keen on eel-grass.
The Canada Goose is one of our most distinctive geese, despite being an introduced species from North America. It is a large bird with black head, white face patches and a brown shaded body. It lives in noisy flocks and can become a nuisance due to its numbers on grasslands and parks. They will live in lakes and gravel pits as well as town parks and feed on vegetation such as roots, seeds, grass and leaves.
The Egyptian Goose is another non-native species that was originally brought to the country as an ornamental species but escaped into the wild and now successfully breeds. It has distinctive brown eye patches on a light brown head with darker brown back and wings and green under feathers and tail. It eats seeds and grasses and is found in parks as well as gravel pits, lowland lakes and wetland areas. The most common area to see them is the north Norfolk coast and the Norfolk Broads.
The greylag goose is said to be the ancestor of most of the domestic geese in the country and is the largest and bulkiest of the wild goose species across the UK and Europe. It had lost population in many areas of the country but has been successfully reintroduced and often found in mixed flocks with Canada Geese in gravel pits, reservoirs and lakes. Their diet is based around grasses, roots, spilled grain and cereal leaves.
The Pink footed goose is a medium sized bird, between the size of a mute swan and a mallard with pinkish grey feathers, a pink bill and pink feet and legs. They breed in Iceland and Greenland then come to the UK over winter on large estuaries, such as on the Scottish coast, the Wash, the Ribble and the Solway. They also go to nearby farmland to feed where they eat grain, winter cereals, grass and potatoes.
The white fronted goose is a grey goose, similar in size to the Pink footed goose. Adult birds have a large white patch on the front of their head that covers around the beak as well as black bars on their belly. They have orange legs and orange bills, unless the birds come from Siberia, when the bill is pink. Birds from Siberia and from Greenland over winter here in the UK and tend to be found in the south; the Severn Estuary around Gloucester and the Swale Estuary in Kent for the Siberia birds or the West of Scotland and Ireland for the Greenland birds. They arrive in October and leave in March, feeding on grass, clover, winter wheat, potatoes and grain.
There are many places you can go to see geese and often if they are used to humans visiting these places, they will come looking for a little treat. Typically, bread has been fed to birds and this is okay, as long as the bread is fresh – anything mouldy is poisonous to them. Alternatively, you can feed them grains such as wheat or corn and fresh greens such as lettuce or spinach. To feed them, throw the food into the water where they are swimming. This is because they need to swallow water with the food and also to avoid encouraging them to come on land to feed – this leaves them vulnerable to accidents such as with cars or dogs as they are less mobile. It is also best not to make these feeds a regular thing as the birds can become dependent on you for food and if you don’t feed it, may end up starving. Your visits should be irregular and provide them with a little treat food to supplement their normal intake of their normal food.