Geese and swans are some of the largest birds you will find in Montana!
Assuming you’re near a large body of water, it shouldn’t be too hard to find at least a few different species. They are fairly common in most lakes, estuaries, wetlands, lagoons, bays, or anywhere else they can find food. Most types of geese and swans are also regularly spotted in farm fields during the winter months, eating leftover crops.
Today, you will learn about 7 types of swans and geese that live in Montana!
For each species, I provide some fun facts along with how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which of these birds live near you!
#1. Canada Goose
- Large goose with a long black neck and a distinctive white cheek patch.
- Brown body with a pale white chest and underparts.
- Black feet and legs.
Canada Geese are extremely common in Montana.
I’m sure you probably recognize these birds, as they are very comfortable living around people and development. Look for them wherever there are grasses or grains to eat, such as lawns, parks, farm fields, and golf courses. I know I have been guilty of stepping in their “droppings” at least a few times in my own backyard as they come to eat corn from my feeding station. 🙂
Canada Goose Range Map
In fact, these geese are now so abundant, many people consider them pests for the amount of waste they produce! If you have a manicured lawn that is maintained all the way to the water’s edge, you have an open invitation for these birds to visit.
The Canada Goose is also easy to identify while flying overhead. If you see a flock of large birds in a V-formation, then it’s most likely them. Flying this way helps conserve energy, and different birds take turns leading the way.
Canada Geese are often heard in Montana.
Listen for a wide variety of loud honks and cackles. Listen above! I have even been hissed at by them for accidentally approaching a nest too closely.
Interestingly, these geese can live a long time! Their lifespan ranges from 10 to 24 years, but one individual banded in 1969 was found again in 2001, 32 years later!
If you’re interested, you may be able to see a Canada Goose at my bird feeding station right now! I have a LIVE high-definition camera watching my feeders 24/7. 🙂 Look for them on the ground eating corn.
#2. Snow Goose
- Most of these birds are all white with black tail feathers. But some individuals display a “blue morph,” whose heads are still white but bodies are sooty gray.
- Pink legs.
- Pink bill, which has a black patch on each side.
During the breeding season, Snow Geese spend their time in the continent’s northernmost areas, away from human civilization. Most people only get the pleasure of seeing this abundant goose in Montana when they migrate south in fall and winter.
Snow Goose Range Map
Look for these birds in large fields and bodies of water. If they are around, it’s usually not hard to find them, as they are almost always seen in huge flocks accompanied by a lot of honking!
In fact, one of the most impressive things you will watch today is the below video, which shows an ENORMOUS flock of Snow Geese. It’s hard to fathom how many birds are traveling together!
And as you can probably hear from the video above, Snow Geese are one of the noisiest waterfowl you will encounter in Montana. Their nasally, one-syllable honk can be heard at any time of day or night, at any time of the year!
And lastly, here is a fun fact that my kids loved to learn. Snow Geese are prolific at pooping, and they defecate between 6 – 15 times per hour. 🙂
#3. Ross’s Goose
- Small, stocky goose that is completely white, except for black wingtips. They are slightly larger than a Mallard duck.
- A stubby red-orange bill that has a gray base.
- Legs and feet are also red-orange.
Ross’s Goose looks very similar to the Snow Goose, except they are smaller and have a shorter neck and stubbier bill. It’s common for these two species to travel together in the same large flocks!
Ross’s Goose Range Map
Populations of Ross’s Goose have been increasing due to climate change. As their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic are warming, the snow cover has been reduced, which increases plant growth. More plants mean more food for Ross’s Goose, which in turn leads to more babies being born and surviving!
During migration and the non-breeding season, these geese can be seen in Montana in marshes, lakes, and farm fields, where they enjoy eating leftover crops.
If you see a flock of white geese flying overhead, listen for Ross’s Goose, which gives a distinctive “keekkeek keek” call. It will sound higher in pitch than a Snow Goose.
#4. Cackling Goose
At first glance, the Cackling Goose looks identical to a Canada Goose! In fact, the plumage is almost exactly the same, and these two birds used to be classified as the same species.
But upon further investigation, you will find that the Cackling Goose is smaller, has a stubbier bill, shorter neck (most apparent when in flight), and a more rounded head.
Cackling Goose Range Map
Cackling Geese can be found breeding in small lakes and marshes in the arctic tundra. During migration and in winter, they are most commonly seen in agricultural fields during the day. At night, they return to large lakes or wetlands to roost.
Another way that this species can be identified from Canada Geese is by sound. Listen for the higher-pitched honking of the Cackling Goose.
#5. Greater White-fronted Goose
- Mostly brown, with black barring on their belly and a white undertail.
- Pink-orange bill with a white patch of feathers at the base.
- Orange legs.
These birds breed in the arctic tundra but then migrate south for winter. Look for these geese in Montana in large flocks in wetlands, lakes, and farm fields.
Greater White-fronted Goose Range Map
Greater White-fronted Geese have INCREDIBLY strong family bonds. Mated pairs migrate with each other and stay together for many years. Their offspring even stick around for longer than most other species, and it’s not unusual to see the young with their parents through the next breeding season.
Their flight call is relatively easy to identify. Listen for a two to three-syllable sound that resembles laughing.
#6. Tundra Swan
- Large, entirely white bird with a long white neck.
- Entirely black bill.
- Look for a yellow patch on their black facial skin, located just below the eye, to correctly identify.
- Smaller than Trumpeter Swans.
During summer, you will not see Tundra Swans in Montana, as they spend the breeding season in the remote arctic. Look for them in winter and during migration, where they are visitors to many large bodies of water. They also visit farm fields in large flocks looking for food.
Tundra Swans form long-term, dedicated relationships. Typically by the time they are 2 or 3, they have found a partner. Once that happens, these two birds will breed, feed, roost, and travel together year-round.
The most common sound these birds make is a “hoo-ho-hoo” bugle, with the second syllable being emphasized. (Listen below)
Another typical sound associated with Tundra Swans is the whistling of their wings. In fact, Lewis and Clark initially called them “whistling swans” when they first encountered them, and many people still use this name today.
#7. Trumpeter Swan
- A giant, white bird with a long neck.
- Black bill and black facial skin at the base of the bill. It lacks the yellow that appears on the Tundra Swan.
- Black legs.
Trumpeter Swans are the largest bird native to Montana! They have a wingspan of almost 6 feet (1.8 m) and weigh around 25 pounds (11.3 kg), which is about twice the amount of a Tundra Swan. In fact, they are so big, about 100 yards of open water is needed for them to get enough speed to take off!
Trumpeter Swans were once endangered due to overhunting, but luckily their population has recovered, and they are increasing their numbers. Unlike Tundra Swans, this species stays in Montana in summer to nest and breed. Look for them near ponds, lakes, rivers, and marshes, and the farther from people, the better!
These large birds typically nest on an existing structure that is surrounded by water, such as beaver dams, muskrat dens, small islands, floating masses of vegetation, and artificial platforms. Trumpeter Swans are very sensitive when breeding and will commonly abandon their nest sites and babies due to human disturbance.
Deep, loud trumpets can be heard when they are alarmed or defending their territory, which is two syllables with the second one emphasized (“oh-OH“).
Do you need additional help identifying geese or swans?
Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist!
Which of these swans and geese species have you seen in Montana?
Leave a comment below!
The range maps above were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!
To learn more about other water birds near you, check out these guides!