nest competition

We made an unusual sighting today — a pair of Canada Geese defending their chosen nest site high in a canopy tree from passing Bald Eagles! What makes it unusual is that the geese had staked out a former eagle nest as their own, and were prepared to fight for it with a couple of immature and one adult Bald Eagle that flew by (the latter carrying a stick to add to its nest).

No amount of the Eagle’s threat from flying over or landing above these pugnacious geese could move them from their perch. Judging from the size of the nest, it could have been the place where the juvenile eagle flying above them was reared last year.

Fellow photographer Debbie was shocked that Canada Geese would nest anywhere but a raised hummock in or near a lake, and what were they doing so high up in this tree?

A more typical Canada Goose nesting site on a tiny island in a pond, safe from the marauding dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoon, as well as Great Blue Herons.

But I had seen this behavior from the geese before:

One year, this nest platform belonged to the local Osprey pair, who added hundreds of large and small branches to complete the nest on a 60 foot tall platform.
The next year, a Canada Goose female claimed the Osprey nest platform before the Ospreys returned in the spring, and she successfully reared a half dozen chicks here. The ospreys have not used this platform since — perhaps because the geese beat them to it, and they defend it successfully.

So what is up with these geese nesting in what we think of as un-goose-like nest sites?

Going back a couple of centuries, during the late 1800s and into Depression Era 1900s, the “giant” race of Canada Geese (the big ones we mostly see today) were almost completely extirpated from North America by unregulated hunting, egg collecting, and habitat destruction. They might have disappeared altogether if it weren’t for a tiny population discovered in Rochester, Minnesota, in the 1950s and some captive birds being bred in Boone County, Missouri. Some of these geese were used in a captive breeding program in the 1960s, and by 1981, 6,000 geese were released to the wild at 63 sites to repopulate the “giant” race of Canada Geese throughout North America. It’s hard to believe today with the huge numbers of these geese that roam fields, parks, and wetlands that the species was almost an ornithological footnote.

The belligerent, aggressive behavior of territorial Canada Geese makes them anything but a footnote in ornithological history.

Now what does this history have to do with geese nesting in eagle nests and on osprey platforms? Observations of Canada Geese nesting high on bluffs above the Missouri River were recorded as early as the Lewis and Clark expedition of the river. But I think natural selection, especially the selection that resulted in culling their numbers almost to the point of extinction, could have played a part in explaining the flexibility of Canada Goose nesting behavior. The geese that survived the pogrom of overhunting were probably the ones that sought out remote places that were hard for hunters to get to, like cliff faces or raptor nests in tall trees. Survivors were probably the birds that used unpredictable and untraditional nesting places, not only to avoid being found, but because their traditional nesting sites had disappeared with human activity there. Today, Canada Geese nest in a variety of habitats, usually in wide open spaces with open fields of view: islands in rivers, the tops of beaver lodges and muskrat house, cliff faces, high nest platforms, and yes, raptor nests — even those of Eagles!

17 thoughts on “nest competition

    • They fall, gracefully. They don’t have much in the way of wing spread to slow them down, but they are lightweight and bounce well, even on rocks. Newly hatched youngsters of other bird species do this, too, and they usually make it safely down. Thanks for asking!!

    • Some Geese fly north of the U.S. to breed, but many stay put in the local area in which they were raised. I don’t know about the ones we see in Minnesota, but there seem to be geese around almost all of the year, except during extreme cold and snow.

  1. This so fascinating! In all my years living in MN I have never witnessed this from geese. I’ll keep my eyes open for this behavior. In our yard, we often have crow and blue jay stand-offs. They ‘shout’ at each other over territory. Sometimes it reminds of a ‘gang’ movie on tv. Suddenly the leader from both sides fly at each other in a game of ‘chicken’, and then everyone flies in for a chase. It’s a loud, raucous event. I’ve never seen any birds physically attacked, it’s more a show of power. The crows may be bigger than the blue-jays but the blue-jays don’t give up easily.

    • Thanks for writing, Rose. You’re obviously a keen observer of bird behavior, so you’re likely to see some interesting interactions between these geese and their “neighbors” wherever you find them.

    • Well, I didn’t, until I looked up why geese would prefer an eagle’s nest to building one on the ground! Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Sue, I forwarded your interesting post about Canada geese to my friend Edge Wade, who is an expert birder here in Missouri. She had some supplemental info about the history of their near extirpation that I think you would be interested in. May I forward her email to you? (If so, to what email address?).
    Wendy Williams
    St. Louis, MO
    314-537-7421 cell

    • Well, the eagles will have to do more building if they start from scratch. The one adult BE we saw flying over the nest was carrying a large stick, so perhaps there as a nearby nest under construction already.

  3. We’ve certainly seen that behavior here in Colorado. I like your explanation for how it may have evolved. I had no idea that they’d nearly been extirpated in the U.S., but can’t say it really surprises me, either.

    • Thanks for the confirmation about unusual nest sites of Canada Geese in Colorado — I was pretty sure Minnesota geese weren’t unique in that respect. Many of the large waterfowl, heron, egrets, etc came pretty close to disappearing in the 1800s and 1900s either from hunting pressure or from collectors of eggs and feather plumes. I can’t believe we need a season on Sandhill Cranes today, either!

      • A bit off topic, but an amazing story of bird restoration began in MN 35 years ago, after hunters “confused” trumpeter swans with smaller tundras. The population is now 30k … in large part from the work of Sheila and Jim Lawrence in Monticello and the DNR. And no hunting swans on the Mississippi flyway. The biggest killer is now lead fishing tackle. (Waterfowl can’t tell the difference from digestive pebbles.)
        There were 21 killed just this winter at Sucker Channel near Hwy 96 and Lake Vadnais. Legislation is pending.

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