Almost everyone is familiar with the loud and abundant Canada Goose. Even non birders can pick out the familiar brown bodied, black and white faced bird best known for it’s v-shaped migratory pattern and its reputation for being easily irritated by passers by. However, there is another bird closely resembling the Canada Goose that makes its way across North America during migration: The Cackling Goose.
The Cackling Goose looks extremely similar to the Canada Goose. So similar in fact, that it was originally listed as a Canada Goose subspecies. Eventually, it was determined that the Cackling Goose was different enough to warrant its own species distinction. There are now 7 subspecies of Canada Geese and 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose with each subspecies having subtle differences. While at first glance, the two species are tough to tell apart, there are a some diagnostic characteristics that make differentiating the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose much easier.
One of the most noticeable differences between the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose is overall size. The Canada Goose is by far larger with an average length of 76-110 cm and wing span of 127-170 cm compared the Cackling Goose’s much daintier 63-65 cm length and 108-111 cm wingspan. When standing side by side the difference is obvious with the Cackling Goose being closer in size to a Mallard than to a Canada Goose. However, the issue is that a direct comparison is not always possible. In addition, larger subspecies of Cackling Goose can be close to the size of a smaller subspecies of Canada Goose. For this reason, size alone is not always reliable.
The next distinguishing feature to note is the bill. The Canada Goose’s bill is long and gently sloping to give it a more pointed appearance. The Cackling Goose’s bill is stubbier and slopes down more rapidly; giving it a more triangular appearance. The Cackling Goose’s shorter bill is one of the key features that can be diagnostic in the field even when there are no Canada Geese nearby to compare with.
Much like bill length, neck length is also a key feature that differs in the two species. The Canada Goose has a comparatively longer neck than the short neck of the Cackling Goose. Even when fully extended, the Cackling Goose will still appear to have a shorter neck. This feature can be slightly deceptive as Canada Geese can appear to have short necks when they are resting and length can be largely dependent of position of the bird..
There are a few other less noticeable features that differentiate the species as well. One thing to look for is primary projection. The wing tips of the Canada Goose typically do not stretch as far beyond the rump as those of the cackling Goose. This gives the Cackling Goose a slightly more elegant appearance.
The size and shape of the head can also be used as a diagnostic tool. The Canada Goose’s head is larger and has a more gentle sloped angle from the back of the head to the front. The Cackling Goose has a smaller and more rounded head.
Long pointed bill
Shorter primary projection
Flatter sloping head
Short, stubby, triangular bill
Longer primary projection
Small rounded head
Canada Goose vs. Cackling Goose can certainly be a challenging ID. Since most of the differentiating features are comparative, it can especially difficult to make an identification when there are no other birds around for perspective. With both species varying wildly in size due to many subspecies, no one characteristic should be used to disseminate the two. Instead, all characteristics together can help paint a clearer picture of which birds are Canada Geese and which are Cackling Geese.