The Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), also known as Lesser or Small Canada or Canadian Goose in North America, belongs to the genus of black geese Branta, which contains species with black plumage, distinguishing them from the grey Anser species.
The black head and neck with white “chinstrap” distinguish this goose from all except the larger Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and the similarly-sized Barnacle Goose (B. leucopsis). There are up to 5 subspecies of Cackling Goose, of varying sizes and plumage. Some are hard to distinguish from the Canada Goose, with which the Cackling Goose was long assumed to form one species, and the name Lesser Canada Goose properly denotes the subspecies Parvipes of the Canada Goose. The distinctness of the extinct population of the Komandorski and Kuril Islands B. h. asiatica is controversial. The Barnacle Goose differs in having a black breast and grey, rather than brownish, body plumage.
This species is native to North America and it breeds in northern Canada and Alaska in a variety of tundra habitats. Nests are usually located in an elevated area near water. The eggs are laid in a shallow depression which is lined with plant material and down. Males can be very aggressive in defending territory. A pair may mate for life (up to around 20 years). The female looks virtually identical but is slightly smaller and has a different voice. Adult geese are often seen leading their goslings in a line with one parent at the front, and the other at the back of the “parade”.
The Cackling Goose is naturally migratory and winters across most of the U.S.A., and locally in western Canada and northern Mexico. The calls overhead from large groups of Cackling Geese flying in V-shaped formation signal the transitions into Spring and Fall. In some areas, migration routes have been altered due to changes in habitat and food sources.
Cackling Geese have sporadically reached into western Europe, as has been proved by ringing recoveries. The birds are of at least the subspecies hutchinsii, and possibly others. Cackling Geese are also found naturally on occasions in the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia, eastern China, and throughout Japan.
Their diet consists mainly of plant material. When feeding in water, they submerge their heads and necks to reach aquatic plants, sometimes tipping forward like a dabbling duck. Flocks of these birds often feed on leftover cultivated grains in fields, especially during migration or in winter. They will also occasionally eat insects, mollusks and crustaceans.
By the early 20th century, over-hunting and loss of habitat caused a serious decline in the numbers of this bird in its native range. With improved game laws and habitat recreation and preservation programs, their populations have recovered in most of their range, although some local populations may still be declining, especially of the subspecies minima and leucopareia. Though the taxonomic distinctness of the Komandorski and Kuril Islands populations, which used to winter in Japan, is controversial, it is without doubt that they disappeared around 1929.