Verification of Unusual Sight Record
For Utah

Rec. # 2008-35

Common name:

Cackling Goose

Scientific name: Branta hutchinsii
Date: 6 and 7 Dec 2008
Time: 3:40 PM on the 6th; 1:30 PM on the 7th
Length of time observed: 10 minutes; 30 minutes
Number: 1
Age: Adult
Sex: Unknown
Location: Logan River Golf Course, Logan
County: Cache
Latilong: 3. Logan
Distance to bird: 20-40 yards
Optical equipment: Nikon spotting scope with 20x eyepiece, Nikon Monarch 10x42 binoculars, Pentax Optio W30 digital camera
Weather: Cool, upper 30s F (estimated), wind near still
Light Conditions: Direct sunlight, mostly backlit in the first observation and mostly front- or sidelit in the second observation
Description:        Size of bird: Larger than nearby mallards, smaller than nearby Great Basin Canada Geese
(Description:)       Basic Shape: Goose shape, see details below
(Description:)  Overall Pattern: White-cheeked goose pattern.  See details below.
(Description:)            Bill Type: Relatively short goose bill.
Field Marks and
Identifying Characteristics:
This goose was easily identified as a "white-cheeked goose" (Canada or Cackling) by its pale brown body and wings, black tail, black neck and head, and white cheek patches extending up from under the chin onto the face.  This bird had a smaller, stubbier bill than the Great Basin Canada Geese with which it was associating.  Its neck was shorter and stockier.  Its head was smaller and more square (i.e. shorter from the base of the bill to the back of the head).  The culmen was straighter and shorter than the Canada Geese's, and formed a more abrupt angle with the forehead.  The forehead seemed bullheaded, with a more abrupt angle from the forehead to the crown.  There was also a more abrupt angle at the back of the crown leading down to the nape than on the Canada Geese.  The breast was a more pale tan than the Great Basin Canada Geese.  Body size was significantly smaller than those geese in all dimensions (shorter in total length and shorter in breadth).  The presence or absence of a black "chinstrap" bisecting the white cheek patches under the throat was not observed in this individual, but was variable among the Great Basin Canada Geese.
(see photos)
Song or call & method of delivery: None known to come from this individual. 
Behavior:  Sleeping, loafing on the water, and feeding on the golf course grass with other "white-cheeked" geese.
Habitat: Pond surrounded by manicured lawn on a golf course.
Similar species and how
were they eliminated:
This goose was identified as a "lesser white-cheeked goose" (Branta canadensis parvipes, Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii, or Branta hutchinsii taverneri) on the basis of its small size, short bill, and small rounded head.  Separating the Lesser Canada Goose, Branta canadensis parvipes, from the larger two Cackling Goose subspecies, Taverner's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii taverneri) and Richardson's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii) can be difficult but I believe this distinction can be made for this individual.  In this case identification was simplified because there were at least two Lesser Canada Geese present in the same flock, and one was available for side-by-side comparison at one point with the goose in question.  I believe this goose is a Richardson's Cackling Goose.  The bill is shorter and with a steeper, straighter culmen (less concave) than in the Lesser Canada Goose, and forms a more abrupt angle with the forehead.  The head angles more sharply than the head of a Lesser Canada Goose where the forehead meets the crown.  The head appears shorter and more square than that of a Lesser Canada Goose.  The bill is not as short and stubby as it would be on a Cackling Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii minima.  Taverner's and Richardson's Cackling Geese can be quite difficult to distinguish, but I believe the very pale breast of this bird points towards Richardson's.  The breast was paler than that of the Lesser Canada Goose and about the same tone as that of the Great Basin Canada Geese (paler than some, darker than others).  There was no neck ring present and the margin between the black neck and the breast was somewhat indistinct, further supporting Richardson's Cackling Goose, although not necessarily eliminating Taverner's either.  Taverner's Cackling Geese overlap in body size with Lesser Canada Geese, and therefore the small size of this bird relative to a Lesser Canada Goose supports the identification as Richardson's Cackling Goose (see photo B).

Photo A shows the presumed Cackling Goose in profile in the foreground with many Canada Geese in the background.  (Most of these Canada Geese are Great Basin Canada Geese. The large individual directly behind the Cackling Goose and facing right may be a Giant Canada Goose, Branta canadensis maxima.  The goose directly behind the Cackling Goose and facing left seems a potential candidate for Lesser Canada Goose, but the angle of this bird may simply be shortening the impression of its bill shape and its position adjacent to the large goose may be making it seem smaller than it is.) This photo shows well the profile of the head of the Cackling Goose: note the short, steep culmen, the abrupt angle with the forehead, the abrupt angle from the forehead to the crown, the abrupt angle from the crown down to the nape, and the overall size of the bird.   

Photo B is particularly informative because it shows a Lesser Canada Goose in the foreground with the Cackling Goose just behind.  Note that the bill of the Lesser Canada Goose is smaller than that of the Great Basin Canada Geese in photo A, but still larger and longer-shaped than the Cackling Goose's.  The Lesser Canada Goose also shows a hint of a white neck ring, which is typical of this subspecies.  The size of the bird in question relative to the Lesser Canada Goose further points toward Richardson's (vs. Taverner's) Cackling Goose because Taverner's and Lesser overlap broadly in size and Richardson's averages smaller than the pair, although Richardson's can also overlap in size with these other subspecies.  The Lesser Canada Goose also has a more narrow white cheek patch than the Great Basin Canada Geese.  This is consistent with other photos I've seen of this subspecies, but I do not yet know if it is a diagnostic trait and I have not seen other sources mention it.  Also note the relatively pale breast of the Cackling Goose in this photo compared to the Lesser Canada Goose, which further indicates this is a Richardson's Cackling Goose.  Taverner's Cackling Geese usually have darker breasts than Lesser Canada Geese and both are darker than Great Basin Canada Geese.

Photo C shows the Cackling Goose at lower left with more Great Basin Canada Geese.  The head of the Cackling Goose is not quite in full profile, giving an artificially even shorter appearance to the bill and making it look more like Branta hutchinsii minima.  This photo is included not to show head and bill size but to show a better comparison of body size, especially body width and height.
Previous experience with
this & similar species:
I have seen many Cackling Geese in Washington State, where both species are relatively common in winter, and thousands of Canada Geese around the country, including Utah.
References consulted: No field guides were used at the time of observation.  Because this recent split between Canada and Cackling geese has yet to be adequately covered by any book in my opinion, I mostly consulted websites in confirming this identification.  Those websites included:
Description from: Notes taken at time of sighting
Observer: Ryan P. O'Donnell
Observer's address: 1098 Crescent Dr, Logan, UT 84341
Observer's e-mail address:
Other observers who independently identified this bird: Stephanie Cobbold and Jason Piertzak
Date prepared: 10 Dec 2008
Additional material: Photos
Additional Comments: