Bird world

Chico State biology professor and waterfowl expert Jay Bogiatto weighs in on the abundance of geese that will grace the upcoming Snow Goose Festival

Snow geese in the foggy Butte Sink Unit of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Snow geese in the foggy Butte Sink Unit of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

A number of Chicoans have noticed in recent weeks a distinct lack of sound when it comes to the familiar overhead honking of geese at night. This is the time of year when snow geese and Ross’s geese—collectively called white geese—are normally busy making their way down the Pacific Flyway from their icy nesting areas in Canada and Alaska in search of warmer climes. So is it possible that this year’s Snow Goose Festival (Jan. 26-29)—the increasingly popular, four-day celebration of the migration of millions of waterfowl along the North State’s section of the Pacific Flyway—will be lacking in (gasp) geese?

“I understand that folks in Chico had voiced concern that geese populations may be down; people hadn’t heard as many birds this year,” said Chico State biology professor Jay Bogiatto, whose research specialty is waterfowl biology.

But does that necessarily mean a lack of geese?

Bogiatto outlined the possible scenarios: First, he looked at the possibility that there simply “may be not as many birds this year,” that white-geese populations may indeed have declined since last year.

“But, to my knowledge, there’s no data to suggest that possibility at all. There is no data to suggest any sort of a significant population decline in white geese.”


But not so fast. Next, Bogiatto brought up the issue of climatic influences that may be affecting the presence of geese in the local area.

“Arctic-nesting geese start to move down the Pacific Flyway from western Canada and northern Alaska, and, very significantly, Wrangel Island [in the Arctic Ocean],” he offered. “The Central Valley of California is one of their major wintering grounds. In fact, this is the most important wintering ground—more birds winter here than anywhere else in the Pacific Flyway.”

Birds, explained Bogiatto, move south along the flyway “because of changing day length, and weather. As they move south, when they find open [nonfrozen] water, they ‘stage’ into certain areas.” It’s possible, he said, that the birds may be lingering longer than usual in the states of Washington and Oregon, where unseasonably warm, balmy weather has caused bodies of water to remain unfrozen longer than is normally the case. This could cause a number of birds to remain north of California for a longer period of time as there would be no need for them to seek thawed waters farther south.

“We have no data as to how many birds may still be up north,” he said. “If there are fewer birds in the valley right now, it may be that the birds simply haven’t arrived yet.

“But, I don’t think it’s the weather conditions [up north] either.”

What, then?

“I think local weather conditions are making it seem like there are less geese,” said Bogiatto. Normally, there is cloud cover—rainy weather, fog—in winter. If there is cloud cover, which there hasn’t been until very recently, birds actually become “disoriented,” he said, and instead of landing, feeding and frolicking in the surrounding wetlands and rice fields, they end up straying into town.

“Birds get disoriented in fog,” Bogiatto said. “Birds that are disoriented by rainy, foggy conditions may wander toward town, off course.” Bogiatto said he’s seen whole, huge populations of birds that are normally on the west side of the Sacramento River end up on the east side of the river due to fog-induced disorientation.

The noticeable lack of geese at night, then, “may be due to less wandering by birds when visibility is good. There is a lot of data to suggest that geese [normally] sleep at wildlife refuges and in rice fields—flooded rice fields attract birds. Why have we not been seeing as many geese? It’s likely due to local weather conditions—and geese staying in their habitat and not wandering.”

Bogiatto is confident that there will be plenty of geese for festival goers to see this weekend. “The numbers for all geese wintering in California is about a million or so,” he said, with “60 to 70 percent wintering in the Sacramento Valley. Clearly one of the reasons for that is rice—otherwise a lot of birds would move down to the Delta, the San Joaquin Valley, even Mexico.

“Goose populations are thriving,” he continued. “I would say that anybody who goes out on extensive tours of the valley should expect to see large populations of geese.”

The Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, near Willows, and Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, near Gridley, are top-notch places to view geese and other migrating waterfowl. “The Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge is well-known as a great goose refuge, a great area to view geese,” Bogiatto said, and Gray Lodge is “an awesome place to view geese. There’s a visitor lodge, and a great loop to view geese.”

Both locations—as well as numerous others, including the rice fields of nearby Richvale, Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and the Llano Seco Rancho viewing platform—are featured stops in the many bird-sighting field trips led by expert birders offered at this year’s—the 13th annual—Snow Goose Festival.

“There is nothing to suggest that white-goose populations are declining within the Pacific Flyway. Nobody should expect to see fewer geese this year,” said Bogiatto. “The numbers should be equivalent to the last several years.”