List of Goose Species & Types of Geese Worldwide 2020 [Updated]
Geese, contained within the family Anatidae along with swans and ducks, comprise three genera: Branta, or black geese; Anser, or grey geese; and Chen, or white geese, which is sometimes grouped as a subgenus of Anser.
From that sentence alone you may have surmised that the classification of geese is somewhat complicated. This is largely because organisms used to be classified based on morphology, or their physical appearance. However, the emergence of modern taxonomy and phylogenetic coding mean that many species, both plant and animal, have been and are being re-classified.
Why All the Confusion With Geese?
This phylogenetic complexity and confusion is also due to the rapid evolution and hybridization of geese for millions of years, leading there to be some uncertainty as to whether there are hundreds of goose species, or a couple dozen with each having many quite similar subspecies that aren’t quite different enough to be classified as a separate species.
The line drawn between when an organism is a totally distinct species, when it’s a subspecies, and when it’s just a moderately different individual of the same species, is somewhat subjective, and makes the matter more complex.
Most studies regarding waterfowl hybridization have been geared toward ducks, likely because they’re frankly easier to work with than their larger, more foul-tempered (pun absolutely intended) goose relatives. However, a study conducted in 2016 aimed to bridge that gap, and explored many of the various goose hybrids, trying to find answers as to why geese hybridize, and whether or not it provides them with adaptive advantages. The results were helpful to ornithologists, but ultimately more studies must be conducted to better understand and construct the phylogenetic tree of geese.
Are Geese Beneficial to the Environment?
Regardless of their taxonomic position, at least one thing is certain: native geese provide many crucial ecosystem services and benefits. These include dispersing aquatic invertebrates and seeds via both consumption and attachment to their feathers, nutrient deposition via feces that fuel plants, and helping to control aquatic plant growth that in turn opens up waterways for other organisms to use, including fish and other waterfowl.
As with any organism, these services can become a detriment when populations exceed natural numbers – many goose species have boomed beyond carrying capacity in response to human activities like widespread agriculture and an unhealthy reduction in the numbers of animals that prey on goose eggs and goslings, like foxes, eagles, and snakes. Some others are declining in number due to climate change, habitat destruction, and poaching.
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List of Goose Species & Types of Geese Worldwide (With Pictures!)
For the sake of simplicity and to hopefully lessen any confusion on the matter, here we’ll simply cover the primary species (found in North America, the UK, and the rest of Europe) and not go terribly in-depth with phylogeny or subspecies. We’ll also consider Anser and Chen to be separate genera, rather than Chen being contained within Anser.
There are quite a few living goose species worldwide – Anser contains 11 species, Branta contains 6 species (possibly as many as 8), and Chen contains 3 living species. Regardless of species, most geese become quite territorial and aggressive during the breeding season (particularly when they have goslings), but are more sociable in the winter when they travel in massive flocks with waterfowl of all types.
1) Brant/Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)
The brant goose, also sometimes called the brent goose, utilizes the coastal marshes of the Arctic tundra in Alaska and northern Canada during the breeding season. In winter, they can be found on coastlines and salt marshes along the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
The brant goose is one of the smallest geese, with the shortest tail (it almost looks as though they lack a tail entirely). Its body measures less than 60 cm (2 feet) in length, with a weight ranging from 1 to 5 pounds and a wingspan on average of 4 feet. They are easily identified by their stubby tail, equally stubby black beak, and a neck with a white band below its black or dark brown head. They are usually found in large flocks and mate for life.
These petite geese are most often found in marshlands and coastal estuaries, particularly in the winter, but may also be seen in ponds and, occasionally, agricultural fields. Their primary diet is composed of vegetation like sea lettuce, water lettuce, eelgrass, seaweed, and other
2) Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)
Native to North America, cackling geese spend their summer breeding season in the cooler climes of northern Canada and Alaska. In winter, they venture south throughout the US and northern Mexico, and may occasionally be spotted in Siberia and Japan.
As you can likely tell, the cackling goose looks remarkably similar to the Canada goose. In fact, until 2004 these two geese were grouped as the same species (with cackling geese being a subspecies of the Canada goose) and was often referred to as the “cackling Canada goose” or the “Tundra Canada goose.”
However, newly emerged genetic studies enabled ornithologists to conclusively separate the two into different species, based on significant genetic divergence, the fact that cackling geese are most often smaller than Canada geese, and they occupy different ranges (cackling geese are often found further north and west).
With a size ranging from 3 to nearly 7 pounds, cackling geese are usually small but can, depending on the subspecies (cackling geese have several identified subspecies), be as large as a Canada goose. Their wingspan is approximately 4 to 6 feet, and they possess a characteristic black head, muddy-looking torso coloration, and a distinct thick white chinstrap that extends up their cheeks.
At first glance, they simply look like a miniature replica of a Canada goose. But if you look closely, cackling geese have shorter, stubbier beaks, a rounder and more compact head, and a short, thick neck even when fully extended. They’re much less common than Canada geese (and protected by law from hunting or culling due to their rarity), and as such are often easy to spot due to their small mallard-like size and stubby beak, even amongst a large flock of Canada geese.
3) Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Perhaps the most widely known goose in North America, the Canada goose is, as you might expect, native throughout Canada and the US where they spend their summers. Around 300 years ago this species was introduced to the UK, and is now a common and easily recognizable bird there despite being invasive to Europe. In the winter, these large geese can be found throughout Asia, South America, Mexico, and even on islands like the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
Typically weighing anywhere from 7 to 14 pounds, Canada geese are among the largest of the goose species. The largest Canada goose on record was a 24 pound male, which also makes it the largest wild goose ever recorded. Their wingspan ranges from 4 to 6 feet, making this another way to tell them apart from cackling geese – Canada geese have shorter wings proportional to their body than do cackling geese. Canada geese also have long, pointy beaks as opposed to being short and stubby, and longer, thinner necks that settle into an S shape when resting (most cackling geese have necks too short and thick to achieve much curvature).
As with all goose species, Canada geese are primarily herbivores. They, like their closely related cackling goose counterparts, are found in large open waters as well as wetlands and agricultural feeds, and can be found feeding readily on aquatic vegetation like pondweed and bulrushes, berries, grasses, algae, and grain crops. Occasionally, they have been known to eat small crustaceans and aquatic insects.
4) Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)
Known commonly in Europe as simply the white-fronted goose, this species breeds in northern Europe and Asia, and spends its winters in southern and western Europe. A subspecies that is slightly larger, Anser albifrons frontalis, breeds throughout Europe but winters in the US (west of the Mississippi River) and Japan.
A ruddy grey-brown colored bird with a white or lighter underside, this goose is sometimes also called the “specklebelly” goose due to its underside sometimes being a mottled or barred white and black/brown color. A wingspan of up to 5.5 feet, a length averaging 2 feet, and a weight of 4 to 7 pounds make this a small to medium-sized goose. It’s an easily identifiable species due to its size, coloration, and an orange beak with a white base that extends toward its face called a “facial blaze.”
Greater white-fronted geese are most often found in open areas like marshes, flooded grasslands, prairies, lakes, and bays during the winter, where they feed primarily on grasses, tubers, aquatic insects, berries, and seeds. In the summer, they can be found in tundra habitats eating largely sedges and grasses.
5) Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
Native primarily to the UK, the greylag goose migrates to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Eurasia for winter. Many populations are feral (but not viewed as harmful), having escaped captive breeding programs as an effort to restore their numbers since they are considered a “vulnerable” species in portions of their range. The only known truly wild, non-introduced populations of greylag geese are found in Scotland and parts of northern Iceland.
At an average weight of 7.3 pounds but sometimes reaching over 10 pounds with a wingspan up to 6 feet, greylag geese are relatively large. They are overall light to medium brown are grey, with darker coloration on their necks that makes the feathers look ruffled. A light grey to white underbody, large orange beak, and pink legs make these goose a straightforward one to identify.
Greylag geese prefer to occupy open country with water bodies such as lakes, ponds, and wetlands. They feed readily on aquatic vegetation like pondweed and eelgrass, but will also eat berries, seeds, tubers, grasses, and crops like corn.
6) Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus)
As might be expected, the lesser white-fronted goose is quite similar in appearance and nature to the greater white-fronted goose. They breed in northern Asia, and winter in central and southern Europe and, on rare occasions, the UK. Their small size and attractive plumage make them popular as pets – as such, most lesser white-fronted geese that are found in Europe during the summer are usually escaped pets rather than members of a wild population.
The primary difference between A. erythropus (lesser) and A. albifrons (greater) is size – the lesser white-fronted goose is only about the size of a mallard. They average less than 4 pounds with a wingspan of around 4 feet and body length of about 2 feet. They possess the same dark coloration, orange feet, yellow eye ring, and white facial blaze as greater white-fronted geese, but the facial blaze of the lesser’s tends to extend further up on the forehead.
Though not seen as often as their larger counterparts, as they are an endangered species due primarily to poaching and habitat loss and alteration, these small geese prefer shrub lands, grasslands, mountainous foothills, and wetlands more than open water. Here they feed readily on grasses, leaves, berries, tender stems and roots, and sometimes agricultural grains in the winter when other food is scarcer.
7) Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)
Pink-footed geese spend the nesting season in Greenland and Iceland, travelling to the UK and northwestern Europe during the winter. Occasionally, some pink-footed geese have seemingly gotten lost during migration, and have wound up in eastern Canada and portions of the east coast of the US. There don’t seem to be any permanent A. brachyrhynchus residents in North America, though.
Quite similar in appearance to the greylag goose and the bean goose, the pink-footed goose can be distinguished with a bit of careful observation. Their backs are light gray, with darker coloration progressing toward their tails. They also have quite short bills that are black with a pink band, whereas bean geese have an orange band and greylag geese have entirely orange bills. They of course also have characteristic pink legs, a trait shared by greylag geese and snow geese. They are a small to medium goose, weighing between 4 and 8 pounds with an average wingspan of 5 feet.
Pink-footed geese are often found on tundra cliffs near lakes or ponds during the nesting season, where they are harder for predators like foxes to reach. In winter, they forage in grasslands, wetlands, and coastal estuaries, where they eat aquatic vegetation, grasses, and roots. They also greatly enjoy sugar beets, but some farmers see this as a boon – the geese eat the leafy tops of the beets left after harvest, thus reducing the transmission of damaging crop diseases that could otherwise persist in the decomposing leaves until the next season.
8) Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis)
The unique red-breasted goose breeds in arctic Siberia, but migrates to southeastern Europe along the Black Sea and occasionally the UK for winter. These small geese are an endangered species, primarily due to habitat loss and poaching. One of the greatest contributors to their declining numbers seems to be irate farmers trying to save their crops from the geese. There are efforts underway in Romania to help build a more positive relationship between farmers and geese in the hopes that red-breasted goose populations there can be recovered.
One of the most easily recognizable goose species, the red-breasted goose is quite a striking bird with many distinguishing markings. The neck, chest, and sides of the head are a red-brown color, bordered by vivid white bands. The back, face, top of the head, and abdomen are black, also bordered by white bands. The lower abdomen is white, giving this bird the appearance of wearing white pants. It also has distinct white wing bars. They are the smallest of the brent geese at under 2 feet in length, 2 to 3 pounds, and a modest wingspan of about 3.5 feet.
During the breeding season, these geese are found in upland grasslands where they typically eat tender grass leaves and shoots. In their winter territories, they most often eat grasses like winter wheat, rye, and barley, but they may occasionally eat some aquatic vegetation as well as insects that they find in the grass and under rocks.
9) Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii)
Native to North America, the Ross’s goose breeds in Canada and travels to the southern US (particularly central and southern California) and northern Mexico for winter. It can, on rare occasion, be found in Western Europe and the UK. It was first formally discovered in Canada in 1861 by Bernard Ross, the bird’s namesake (it was actually discovered nearly 100 years prior to this, but no specimens were captured or sent for study).
Quite a small and stocky goose, the Ross’s goose weighs less than 4 pounds, is about 2 feet long, and has a wingspan averaging 3.5 feet. Brilliantly white body plumage with black wingtips, a short neck, and a stubby, very triangular and straight orange-pink bill with a light green-grey patch at the base (called a “grinning patch”) round out this bird’s appearance. It can be confused with the snow goose, except Ross’s goose is on average 40% smaller than C. caerulescens and is less common.
When nesting, Ross’s geese favor tundra islands where they are less likely to be bothered by predators. Whether in winter or summer, they can be found foraging in wetlands, grasslands, shallow lakes and estuaries, and crop fields. As with the other species on this list, they eat vegetation like grasses, sedges, tubers, and grains. They may occasionally also eat small insects and crustaceans that they find under rocks, in vegetation, and in shallow water.
10) Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens)
The snow goose, also sometimes known as the blue goose because they can possess a blue-grey color variant (but are still the same species), is native to North America and Europe. They breed in the summer in Canada, northern Alaska, and occasionally Greenland and Siberia. They spend winters in southern portions of the US and northern Mexico.
They’re a medium-sized goose, usually between 5.5 and 6 pounds, with males sometimes exceeding this range. They’re between 2.5 and 3 feet in length with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet. Their appearance is much the same as that of a Ross’s goose, but there are some key differences: snow geese are about 40% larger, on average, than Ross’s geese. Snow geese also possess black edges on their pink-orange beak, giving them a much more obvious “grinning patch,” and their beak is noticeably not as straight or stout as that of the Ross’s goose.
In the summer, they can be found in the Arctic tundra, usually within just a few miles of a lake or river. In their winter territories, they are often seen in wetlands, grasslands, ponds, lakes, bays, and crop fields. Their diet is composed heavily of the seeds and leaves of wild grass species, sedges, bulrush, horsetail (equisetum species), and tubers. They may also feed on leftover crops in winter fields, and from time to time may eat insect larvae.
11) Bean Goose (Anser fabalis/serrirostris)
The bean goose, whether the Taiga or Tundra variant, breed in northern Europe (Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and northern Asia (Siberia). They migrate and overwinter in the UK, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, and can sometimes be found as far south as the Mediterranean. Some individuals may not migrate and choose to remain in Scandinavia, particularly if conditions are more mild.
Their size is rather variable, ranging from just under 4 pounds to nearly 10 pounds. Bean geese are typically around 3 feet in size, give or take a few inches, and have a wingspan that can reach nearly 6 feet, though closer to 5 is more common. They can be mistaken for greylag geese or pink-footed geese, but there are a number of features that you can use to distinguish bean geese from the other two without too much difficulty – bean geese have a black bill with a distinct orange band running around it, and orange rather than pink feet. The plumage on their back is also rather dark brown, and almost never grey like pink-footed or greylag geese.
They are often found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and marshes, particularly during the summer breeding season. In winter, they are still found in these types of habitats foraging for aquatic vegetation, but also in grasslands and agricultural fields where they consume grasses, fruits like berries, and leftover waste crops.