Can you tell the difference between Canadas and cacklers? Here’s what goose hunters need to know


It was a simpler time when I grew up. We had only two or three television stations to choose from, we played outdoors with little supervision until the streetlights came on, and we didn’t worry about offending someone every time we told a joke. And for those of us who hunted, there were only two types of Canada geese, greaters and lessers. I don’t have to tell you that things have changed since then, and that includes how science, waterfowl managers and, by default, goose hunters classify these geese today.

Prior to 2004, all 11 of the recognized Canada goose subspecies were considered to be Branta canadensis. In 2004, however, the American Ornithological Society determined there were actually two distinct species of our iconic black-and-white geese. The four smallest of these birds were reclassified as cackling geese (Branta hutchinsii), while the other seven remained as Canada geese.


The four subspecies of cackling geese all breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska, with three of them found almost exclusively in the Pacific flyway. The exception is the Richardson’s cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii), sometimes referred to as the Hutchinson’s cackling goose. It nests across much of the central Arctic and migrates to its winter home in the south-central U.S. (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri) through the Central and Mississippi flyways. As such, it’s the subspecies of cackling goose most encountered by Canadian hunters.


At first glance, Canada and cackling geese look very much alike, but their differences—both physical and behavioural—are actually quite distinct. The most obvious difference is their overall size. Cackling geese range in weight from three to five pounds; they’re only slightly larger than a well-fed mallard. While there is the occasional overlap, even the smallest of the Canada goose subspecies, the lesser Canada goose (Branta canadensis parvipes), averages in the five- to seven-pound range.


Cackling geese also have conspicuously short necks and noticeably smaller bills in proportion to their bodies; their bills look positively stubby. Along with the celebrated white cheek patches they share with Canadas, cacklers also often have a distinctive white ring at the base of their neck that can vary greatly in size. In flight, they can be distinguished by their relatively longer wings and more rapid wingbeats.

Cacklers are clearly smaller than Canadas

Cacklers are highly vocal birds, with a much higher-pitched call than that of Canada geese. Their vocalizations are generally more rapid and squeaky sounding compared to the typical honking of Canadas—some say a large flock of cackling geese sounds like a bunch of yappy lapdogs.

From a hunting perspective, the two species also behave somewhat differently. Cacklers often circle a spread before descending nearly vertically, much the way mallards do, and willingly land among the decoys, even if tightly bunched. Canadas, on the other hand, most often come straight in and prefer to land in an opening. Cacklers are also notoriously noisy birds in comparison to Canadas, so it pays to continuously mimic their high-pitched squeals as they decide whether to land.


So, is being able to differentiate between a cackling goose and a Canada goose really all that important to a hunter? You could make the argument it’s not, given that Canadian hunting regulations currently don’t distinguish between the two. That has not been the case everywhere in the U.S., however, where there had been regulations in place to protect the Aleutian subspecies of cacklers. While those measures have recently been lifted, they serve as an indicator that, when warranted, waterfowl managers may expect hunters to differentiate between the species. Fortunately, the cackler most Canadian goose hunters are liable to encounter—the Richardson’s cackling goose—has a stable population.

It’s probably true that many, if not most, goose hunters aren’t even aware that Canadas and cacklers are two distinct species. Despite there being no regulatory differentiation between the two, however, I believe it is important for the hunting community to learn how to tell them apart. Just as we don’t have to be able to distinguish between blue-winged and green-winged teal to comply with hunting regulations, it’s still our responsibility as users of the resource—and as conservationists—to always be able to identify what we’re harvesting.


When things go sideways for goose hunters, they can still rescue the hunt. Here’s how.