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 10 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
- Branta canadensis
- 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 human development. Look for them wherever there are grasses or grains to eat, such as lawns, parks, farm fields, and golf courses.
Canada Goose Range Map
In fact, these geese are so abundant that many people consider them pests for the amount of waste they produce! If you have a manicured lawn maintained 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, it’s most likely them. Flying this way helps conserve energy, and different birds take turns leading the way.
Canada Geese make a wide variety of loud honks and cackles. They have even hissed at me for accidentally approaching a nest too closely. Listen below!
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
- Anser caerulescens
- 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. You will only see this 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. It’s usually not hard to find them if they are around, 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 video below, which shows an ENORMOUS flock of Snow Geese. It’s hard to fathom how many birds are traveling together!
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
- Anser rossii
- 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 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
- Branta hutchinsii
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 necks (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.
- Branta bernicla
- 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.
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.
Brant Range Map
While they fly overhead, listen for a “crrronk” call, which sounds guttural and is similar to a Sandhill Crane.
#6. Tundra Swan
- Cygnus columbianus
- Large, entirely white bird with a long white neck.
- Entirely black bill.
- To identify correctly, look for a yellow patch on their black facial skin below the eye.
- Smaller than Trumpeter Swans.
You will not see Tundra Swans in Virginia during summer, as they spend the breeding season in the remote Arctic. Look for them in winter and 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
- Cygnus buccinator
- 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 Virginia!
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. They are so big that about 100 yards (91 m) 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 is increasing.
Unlike Tundra Swans, this species stays in Virginia 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 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“).
#8. Mute Swan
- Cygnus olor
- 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 among 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 fly!
But did you know that Mute Swans are NOT native to Virginia?
Due to their beauty, Mute Swans were imported from Europe and released in parks, large estates, and zoos. Unfortunately, these individuals escaped and have established an invasive wild population.
Don’t be fooled by their appearance; these swans can be aggressive and 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 daily!
Despite their name, these swans are not mute!
While relatively quiet, they make a hoarse trumpet sound when defending their territory. And if they are threatened, expect to hear various barks, hisses, and snorts.
#9. Swan Goose
- Anser cygnoides
- Swan Geese are one of the largest geese species. They stand, on average, 3 feet tall (.9 m). Males are usually larger than females.
- Swan Geese have a beautiful range of brown shades on their bodies. Their head and neck are chocolate brown on the upper side and pale beige underneath, giving a stripe effect.
- The legs of Swan Geese are vibrantly orange, while their beaks are deep black.
Swan Geese are a vulnerable species in their native range of Asia. However, they have been domesticated and introduced around the globe for centuries. Two popular domesticated geese breeds, the Chinese Goose and the African Goose, are direct descendants of Swan Geese. They look quite different from their ancestors, with an upright posture and knobbly protrusions above their beaks.
In Virginia, you are much more likely to encounter Swan, Chinese, or African Geese in a domesticated collection than in the wild. However, it is possible to spot escaped or released individuals flocking together with other species near waterways!
I found it interesting that Swan Geese live close to lakes, ponds, or wetlands but rarely swim!
#10. Greylag Goose
- Anser anser
- Greylag Geese are a soft, warm gray-brown.
- Their feathers are rimmed with narrow white edges, which gives them a delicate barred pattern over their wings, chest, and sides.
- The legs of Greylag Geese are pink, while their bills are bright orange.
Greylag Geese are NOT native to Virginia!
These birds are found naturally across Europe and Asia, where they are very common and have a huge natural range.
Interestingly, Greylag Geese gave rise to almost all common domesticated goose breeds.
In Virginia, domesticated Greylag Geese can commonly be seen on farms, estates, and in zoological collections. Occasionally, escaped birds may flourish as feral populations.
Greylag Geese are very social animals. They will almost always be found in flocks, ranging from a few birds to thousands of animals. When flying, flocks adopt the classic V-shape flight formation. Play the video to see them in action!
Do you want to learn about MORE birds in Virginia?
Check out these ID Guides. Each one is specific to birds found here!
Which of these swans and geese have you seen in Virginia?
Leave a comment below!
The range maps below 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!