Wild Goose Chase

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Combe Valley in East Sussex, England is a winter-flooded landscape where many geese (Anser white and Branta black) come to parade in their flocks. So I thought it would be a good idea to have a blog post on geese – a beautiful kind of wildlife that we take a little for granted. Please let me take you on a wild goose chase!

No-one in the scientific world has yet managed to fully categorise geese. Many oddities are seen. There is a basic goose shape which is different to that of a swan or other large water bird – but there are also ‘swan geese’ and ‘domestic geese’ – and then there’s the Alopochen! (photo above).

The blue-eyed Emden Goose (below) shows the basic domestic shape. It is a pure white domesticated variety which often goes wild – and here is one that has flown to Five Lakes, near Maldon in Essex to wander about on the golf course and make the players wild too. It is moulting and has chosen to stand on the spot where swans have been moulting. Some scientists say that the difference between real geese and birds that look or behave like geese is that real geese moult at one time and season whereas some goose-like birds don’t moult at all. But this may not be the whole story.

If we look at this white bird in close-up, we can see the typical domestic squat shape – shorter body that a swan – a bulky bird with an orange-pink bill and pink legs and feet.

So here’s your first mystery. Compare the Emden with the Coscoroba Swan to see some body similarities and differences. No-one is sure if the Coscoroba is a swan or a goose.

Compare it with the Screamer – a bird that some people think is closely related to the very primitive Magpie Goose. The Screamer is not a goose – it is magnificently strange!

So where did geese come from – how have they evolved? We have seen evidence from China that some small feathered dinosaurs developed wings and over time evolved into birds. It is thought that the original ‘goose’ was a Chinese bird – perhaps evolving 10 million years ago in the Miocene period. But we cannot yet fill in the following gaps for all birds that might be geese:

The scientific classification of geese – Goose cladistics, has only managed to produce clarity in these categories:

  • Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (Backbones)
  • Class: Aves (Birds)

Order, Family, Sub-family – not clear – even in 2019 – still lots to do!

Wikipedia tells us that: The three living genera of true geese are: Anser, white/grey geese, including the greylag goose, and and all domestic geese; Chen – white geese (often included in Anser); and Branta, black geese, such as the Canada Goose. However, some ‘geese’ are similar in appearance to shelducks and the Magpie Goose (below) is so ancient that it predates most geese.

So there really is a confusion and more research is needed. The cladistic study of geese is not complete by any means. I have put a chart at the bottom of the article to help you see how things are developing scientifically.

One type that does look a bit like a shelduck is the Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegypticus). Still with pink legs and a squat body holding the typical ‘goose’ shape.

Here’s a shelduck for comparison…and a slideshow below

So what is the connection between a Shelduck and these Egyptian Geese in the slide-show below?

All ducks, geese and swans belong to the family Anatidae. But the Egyptian Goose is all by itself in the Alopochen family – the other birds in this family are all extinct. It looks like a Tadorna shelduck but it is not a shelduck and also not a goose at all! That is why this article is entitled Wild Goose Chase – because investigation are still going on into its DNA, which appears to have some very primitive elements in bird development. In England we have called it a ‘goose’ because it looks and acts bit like one – but instead it might be a duck! No-one is sure!

What other exotic-looking geese are there? Well here’s a beautiful one – the Bar-Headed Goose – it is pretty obvious why it has that name.

Another goose – the Canada, is very well defined and very widespread.

Canada Goose honking in Combe Valley, East Sussex, England.

A goose with beautiful and unusual neck markings – the Brant or Brent, is seen here in the sea off the coast of Bosham in West Sussex.

The Greylag Goose (below) comes to Combe Valley in great numbers – and 80 of these geese have been seen taking off at once on February mornings from Crowhurst Lake. These geese forage and nest in the Valley.

Comparison of a Greylag Goose with a Swan – with Canada Goose in the background.

Greylag – A successful breeding family in Combe Valley

Slideshow – Greylags flying and honking

So it is time to try an analyse what we know and what we don’t. Here’s my best shot at the types of geese that we are sure of, and the types of birds that look or behave like geese that we are not sure of. Is anyone reading this capable of resolving the mysteries still remaining?

Geese Analysis: (Anatidae – Swans, Geese and Ducks) (Recently extinct or prehistoric fossils of early geese types not listed.)

(1) True Wild Geese – White – Anser

  • Bean Goose (Anser fabalis) subspecies: (Anser fabalis rossicus)
  • Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirostris)
  • Middendorf’s Bean Goose (Anser Middendorf)
  • Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)
  • White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) subspecies: (Anser albifrons flavirostris)
  • Lesser white-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus)
  • Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
  • Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)
  • Emperor Goose (Anser canagicus)
  • Ross’s Goose (Anser rossii)

2. True Wild Geese – Black – Branta

  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
  • Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
  • Brent or Brant Goose (Branta bernicla) subspecies: Branta bernicla hrota and Branta bernicla nigricans
  • Red-breasted Goose ( Branta ruficollis)
  • Nene Hawaiian Goose (Branta sanvicensis)
  • Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)

3. Not Wild Geese at all: Called a goose but not really a goose!

  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) – might be a shelduck
  • Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) – too primitive to know what it is really
  • Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) – might be a swan or a shelduck or goose
  • Orinoco Goose (Neochen jubata) – probably a shelduck
  • South American Sheldgoose (Chloephaga) – probably a shelduck
  • Spur-winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis) – related to shelducks
  • Blue-winged Goose (Cyanochen cyanopterus) – might a goose, a shelduck or a dabbling duck
  • Pigmy Goose (Nettapus) – linked to Cape Barren and Spur-winged ‘goose’ types
  • Solan Goose (Morus bassanus ) – really a gannet

4. Domestic Geese (Anser anser domesticus)

 and Hybrid types = most descended from the Greylag or Swan Goose

  • Canada + Greylag cross-breed
  • Domestic Emden
  • Toulouse Goose
  • Swan Goose-type domestic

A huge list of domestically cross-bred geese including Fighting Geese can be see here:


I am not a goose genius. If you have any information that shows that progress in final identification has been made, please let me know. Please follows this blog for more on wildlife. Kind regards. David

Photography in this article: All photos copyrighted by David Dennis except Magpie Goose image – Djambalawa at English Wikipedia.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF