Geese and swans are some of the largest birds you will find in Virginia!
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 Virginia!
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 Virginia.
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 Virginia.
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 Virginia 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 Virginia. 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 Virginia 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.
- Black chest, head, and bill. Mostly brown body with white on the sides and underneath.
- A small and compact goose, with a short bill.
- Distinctive white patch on the side of the neck.
Like many other goose species, Brants nest in the Arctic in wetlands. Once the weather turns cold, they migrate south.
Brant Range Map
These geese can be seen in Virginia in coastal areas, where they can find aquatic vegetation to eat in sheltered bays, estuaries, and lagoons. Brants are strictly vegetarian, with eelgrass and large algae playing a large part of their diet.
While they fly overhead, listen for a “crrronk” call, which sounds guttural and is similar to a Sandhill Crane.
#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 Virginia, 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. Mute Swan
- A huge white bird with a long white neck.
- Look for the distinctive orange bill that features a black base and knob.
Mute Swans are one of the most elegant and beautiful birds you will see in the water. They are also enormous and are one of the heaviest birds that can actually fly!
But did you know that these swans are NOT native to Virginia?
Due to their beauty, Mute Swans were imported from Europe and then released in parks, large estates, and zoos. Unfortunately, these individuals escaped and have established an invasive wild population.
Don’t be filled by their appearance; these swans can be aggressive, and they regularly attack kayakers and other people who get too close to their nest. They also displace native ecosystems due to their voracious appetite, which requires up to 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of aquatic vegetation per day!
Do you remember the book “The Ugly Duckling?” This story actually features a young Mute Swan born among ducks but grows up to be a beautiful swan.
Despite their name, these swans are not mute!
While it’s true they are relatively quiet, they make a hoarse trumpet sound when defending their territory. And if they are threatened, then expect to hear and a variety of barks, hisses, and snorts.
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 Virginia?
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!