Hunter Tips for Identifying Dusky Geese in the Field

Tim holds a Taverner's Goose, taken at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.Dusky or not? A thankful Tim holds a Taverner's goose, taken at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

The Dusky subspecies of the Canada goose adds an element of uncertainty to hunting geese in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon.

I know waterfowl hunters in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon who just don’t mess with hunting geese because the challenge of identifying this one-out-of seven subspecies that visits our area is just too great. (That, and they failed the online test to get their goose license!) Get it wrong and you earn a citation and perhaps even get your license pulled for the season.

You can watch the 40-minute goose ID video by the Washington to help you pass the test. However, once you’re out in the field you’ll have a new set of challenges to help you avoid taking one of these threatened birds.

This visual guide from the Nestucca Bay NWR shows a variety of geese and allows you to see the Dusky and Lesser goose dark brown breast feathers.

This visual guide from the Nestucca Bay NWR shows a variety of geese and allows you to see the Dusky and Lesser goose dark brown breast feathers.

Challenges in Identifying the Dusky Goose

All the waterfowl hunters I’ve spoken to about identifying the geese say it can be downright difficult to distinguish a Dusky from other medium to large subspecies, including the Taverners, Lessers and sometimes even Westerns – with even 20-year hunters getting it wrong.

The problem is that most of the time as a hunter you’re not in a great position to make a purely visual ID of the birds. You’ll start to appreciate how difficult it can be if you imagine yourself in a layout blind or pit looking up into a light sky and at the shadowed bellies of the geese flying toward you.  And, a visual identification is unreliable at best. In fact, when wildlife officials try to identify a Dusky from other medium-to-large geese they first use calipers to measure, in millimeters, the culmen of the bird, which is the upper part of the beak. If the culmen measures 40mm-50mm then it’s a suspected dusky. Next they look at breast color, measuring against a Munsell color chart (10YR, 5 or less). Yet even these hands-on attempts to ID the birds are only correct 50%-70% of the time.*

Field Tips for Identifying Duskys

I’ve arranged these tips in the order in which you most often will encounter geese in the field. Typically, first you hear them, then you spot the flock, then you start attempting to identify individual birds, then you choose your target bird. My hope is that when you mount your gun you’re confident in the shot. Just remember, this is an inexact procedure and when it comes down to pulling the trigger I really want to be certain so I tend to be conservative. And also remember that geese can fly in mixed flocks!

1. Sound

Most often I hear nearby geese before I see them, so this is a good place to start. I know many guides say this is not a great way to identify Duskys, but ALL of the Dusky geese I’ve identified make a different sound than other geese. Unlike the two-tone honk “h-wronk” of the Westerns (“Honkers”) or the loud bark or “cluck” of the Cackler, the Dusky goose call sounds raspy and soft, like a moan. I hope to record one to make it easier to hear. So if you hear the Honker or Cackler calls you can be reasonably certain that the flock you’re tracking is OK. If you hear something different it’s time to start thinking Dusky and move to the next tip.

2. Flock / Behavior

The next thing I’ve noticed about Duskys is I have not seen them travel in large flocks. You might see individual birds, however, embedded in larger flocks of other subspecies. But when they travel together they seem to stick in smaller groups of 6-12 birds. They also fly lower and slower than other geese. Some hunters even call them dumb. If you hear low, raspy calls and see a smaller flock flying low and slow, be wary.

3. Size & Silhouette

Duskys are big birds. They look big on the wing and come close to the size of Westerns. They have long necks, which makes it look like their wings are pushed back on their bodies, making their silhouettes look bottom heavy. Cacklers have short stubby necks and look more balanced with their wings more in the center of their silhouettes. Taverners, too, look a little more balanced with slightly longer necks. So if you see a small group of larger geese with long necks flying low, slow and making raspy calls, be wary.

Tim holds a Taverner's Goose, taken at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Dusky or not? A thankful Tim holds a Taverner’s goose, taken at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

4. Color

By the time they get close enough to shoot you should be reasonably sure whether you are tracking Cacklers, Westerns, or the other mid-sized geese. You’re probably pretty wary and are now faced with picking out an individual goose. So look for this last identifying portion. Duskys have dark brown breasts, which at times looks a little rusty. MOST of the rest of Canada geese have grey breasts in varying shades. The wildlife test asks you to distinguish between light and dark, but I suggest you start with brown and grey. If I see brown or rust instead of the lighter (or even a little darker) grey I don’t pull the trigger.

5. Pick on the Little Guy

Finally, when we have a flock fly over that is borderline, meaning some of the birds match some of the characteristics above, I look for the smallest bird in the flock and check its neck. If it’s a short neck I pull the trigger. Remember that the first thing wildlife officials check is the culmen length. Cacklers are about the easiest to pick out and their culmen length is much shorter than that of a Dusky. You can be reasonably assured that if you’ve shot a small, grey-breasted bird you can keep your goose and cook it, too.

Cackling Goose and Taverner Goose

In this 2019 photo you can see the cackler on the right is smaller, with a shorter neck and bill, and has darker patches on its breast feathers. The taverner has a more uniform silver breast with a slightly longer neck and longer bill. Notice the contrast between the cackler breast feathers and while tail.

I blew it in 2017

Even after writing all this and knowing the rules, I dropped a Dusky goose on a foggy morning at Ridgefield NWR. The flock bombed right out of the fog on top of us and in my excitement I popped one. The volunteer at the check station confiscated it and I lost my goose license for the rest of the season, which was thankfully only a week. The local warden let me off without a fine (thank you!). My mistake was not waiting long enough for the birds to show signs. I thought they were Westerns as they were very large. The fact that they came in low in the fog should have been enough of a warning flag (see #2 above) for me to look harder before pulling the trigger. I’ll keep working at it!

Other Resources

*Excerpt from Siblet Guides: “Finally, as a cautionary note, Pearce et al (2000) used genetic testing to assess the accuracy of identifications of Dusky Canada Geese B. c. occidentalis at hunter check stations in Washington. They found that one-third to one-half of all the geese identified as Dusky by breast color and bill length (measured in the hand) were in fact not true Duskys. And if that’s the level of accuracy achieved by experienced people with birds in hand, what can we expect to do in the field? This is an irresistible challenge for some of us, but until we have a better sense of the variation and limits of these subspecies all identification should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

 

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