The AGJV supports banding operations of geese across the Arctic, from Baffin Island to Alaska. Most of these banding operations take place in late summer when geese are molting their wing feathers and cannot fly, and when young of the year have not yet fledged. (see ‘Capturing Flightless Geese by Herding’, below) From 1989–2019, more than 1 million geese from AGJV populations and species of interest were banded. AGJV banding studies, and public reporting of these bands when they are found, have provided information about timing of migration, recovery distributions, survival rates, population sizes, and harvest rates.

Scientists rely on the interest and engagement of tens of thousands of United States and Canadian citizen scientists to collect goose-related information. For example, a large volume of information is provided annually by the public through harvest questionnaire surveys, species composition surveys and band recoveries. Hunters “sample” the population of marked birds and report band recoveries and seasonal harvests of geese. Parts from harvested birds (i.e., tail fans and wing tips of harvested geese) are used for determining the species, age, and sex composition of the annual harvest.

From all this information, there is now improved knowledge of goose distribution during migration and winter, which has led to the combined management of several populations of geese from breeding areas that were formerly divided into smaller regional components, including midcontinent White-fronted Geese, midcontinent Cackling Geese, and midcontinent Lesser Snow Geese. Band recovery data from hunters have also been used to monitor changes in distribution of species like Ross’s Geese, which have greatly expanded their range eastward over the past few decades.

Capturing molting White-fronted Geese on Alaska’s North Slope for banding

Banding Baffin Island

Each year, at least 80,000 hunters respond to harvest questionnaire surveys in the United States, and another 12,000 or so in Canada. In addition, hunters report approximately 60,000 hunter-shot band recoveries from all species of migratory game birds each year.

The information collected from this massive citizen science effort is invaluable. Given the large numbers of geese in North America, their remote breeding areas in Arctic regions, and large and expanding geographic distributions of these populations, traditional monitoring techniques, such as aerial surveys, are often either logistically impractical or prohibitively expensive. Thus, the information collected from the hunters and others who recover and resight banded birds is critical to monitoring efforts aimed at ensuring the long-term sustainability of these species.

The Arctic Goose Joint Venture expresses sincere gratitude to all partner agencies, researchers and the thousands of citizen scientists who contribute to the knowledge base needed to manage North American geese.

Capturing Flightless Geese by Herding

Capturing flightless geese by herding them into enclosures has been used by northern Indigenous Peoples for millennia (referenced in Nelson 1899, Cooch 1953, Klein 1966). The same basic principles of herding that were pioneered by Indigenous Peoples are used annually by waterfowl biologists across Alaska and northern Canada, who seek to capture and band a representative sample of individuals towards monitoring their population status (i.e., estimating population size, and annual survival and harvest rates).

Current capture and banding methods are continually evaluated, as biologists attempt to maximize efficiency and ensure birds are released in the same conditions in which they were captured. The most significant advancement in capture methods occurred in the 1960s, when commercial helicopters became available for hire. Prior to this, large banding crews operated over expansive areas, either on foot or using small watercraft, and walked large numbers of flightless geese into temporary corrals (Cooch 1953). The use of helicopters offered a number of important advantages; small, mobile crews could operate over much larger areas, efficiently locating, capturing and quickly releasing smaller groups of geese over the course of a season. Use of helicopters also permitted banding of species which occur at low densities (greater white-fronted geese), or are mostly found in maritime ecosystems (e.g., Atlantic Brant). Minimizing processing time is important for minimizing the effects of capture and handling, and the efficiency gained in the herding process (driving birds over shorter distances, in close proximity to water) also resulted in improvements to the welfare of captured birds.

Banding is specifically timed to focus on either non- or failed-breeding adult geese (who molt relatively early), or brood flocks (molting adults and their young). A typical banding crew consists of 3-5 banders, although in some areas crews can be larger, and may be  supported by small boats, additional helicopters, or float planes. Groups of flightless geese are located by low-level helicopter or fixed-wing reconnaissance, and a suitable net location (i.e., dry, with substrate capable of holding net poles, and in a location that typically allows the helicopter to fly into the wind) is identified in close proximity to the geese (<500 m). Crew members are strategically positioned to prevent the flock from scattering, and a portable corral is quickly erected by pounding aluminum rods connected with mesh netting into the soil. The pen is sized according to the size of the flock, and the ends of the net are positioned to form two gently tapered V-shaped flanks. The bottom of the net is held in place with tent pegs, which are sharply angled into the ground. Geese are slowly herded into the net using the helicopter and the crew (Figure 1). In some cases, the crew may hide, and then only appear when the geese are in close proximity to the net. If goslings are present, they are quickly separated and placed into a separate corral to prevent trampling by the much larger adults. Specially made Shepard’s hooks are used by some crews to separate goslings, and to retrieve individuals from the pen for banding. This tool maintains calm amongst the flock, and prevents exhaustion of birds, which can happen if personnel must repeatedly enter the pen to capture by hand. In recent years, some banders have been fixing tarpaulins to the base of the net, and have found this prevents birds from pushing and piling up against the net, which can be a problem in large drives (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Helicopters can be an effective way to herd small flocks of molting waterfowl. Here, a Robinson R-44 equipped with floats is used to drive a group of black brant.

Figure 2. A tarp placed around the capture corral can help keep birds calm, limits trampling and discourages them from escape attempts that could lead to injury. The capture corral is also reinforced with fiberglass poles along the outside, and there is enough space to prevent goslings from being trampled. A separate release pen for banded birds is visible in the upper right.

Species designation is usually obvious, but bill and head characteristics, body size, and body conformation sometimes result in characterization of a few individuals as putative hybrids.  Sex of individuals is determined by cloacal examination, and birds are assigned to an age class based on plumage characteristics. Standard metal leg bands are applied to all healthy individuals with sufficiently large tarsi. After banding, goslings and adults are released together to encourage re-establishment of family groups. Birds are not driven or held in nets during inclement or extreme weather such as rain, or temperatures above about 25 C, and the status of captured birds are closely monitored for stress by experienced banders. Groups larger than about 400 are generally avoided, and in most cases flocks number 200-300, although this is species dependent. An efficient handling routine, including pre-opened bands, and cohort-specific band sequences are used to minimize the direct holding and processing time of a given individual goose.  Handling time for an individual goose is usually less than 1 minute, and holding time is usually < 1 hour.

Reporting Banded Birds

Did you find a banded bird? Find out how to report it!

Banding and Recovery by Species

Canada and Cackling Geese

Western Arctic Lesser Snow Geese

Ross's Geese

Midcontinent Cackling Geese

Canada Geese

Brant Geese

Cackling Geese

Snow Geese

Ross's Geese

Greater White-fronted Geese

Emperor Geese