The strange tale of the North Metro bar-headed goose

Bar Headedgoose2
Somehow, a bird that has been known to fly over Mount Everest at 29,000 feet turned up in a pond just north of the Twin Cities. How it got there is anyone’s guess, but it is always a treat to discover a species rare to the area so close to home. (Photo by Sandy Swanson)

My friend, Court Storey, recently showed me an image of a bird and asked if I could pinpoint the exact species. I couldn’t. I could tell it was probably from the goose family, but it was not a bird I had seen before. I asked some questions to try to decipher the answer.

Is this bird native to the United States?

No, but these pictures were shot in Minnesota, and the bird was with wild Canada geese.

So it’s not native, but is it a common species found in numbers in this area?

No. We have learned that this bird is very uncommon in North America and is a wild species native to Asia. They are sometimes available for sale in the U.S. and occasionally are seen in the wild here. It is possible someone had this bird in captivity here and it just joined up with the Canada geese. Or it is possible it in fact migrated here from Asia? My own first guess on species was that this was some form of hybrid.

So what is it?

Court explained, “I have a longtime friend and hunting buddy who lives just north of the Twin Cities metro area who has a nice pond on his property which is often frequented by Canada geese. A mystery bird showed up in this pond with some Canada geese in late April and resulted in two very fuzzy photos. We tried to figure out what it was and we had a few theories but never reached a conclusion.”

This friend with the pond is one of a group of five individuals, all in their mid-70s who have hunted ducks and geese together in Minnesota and in Canada since the 1950s. Court’s father, Ben Storey Jr., of St. Paul and now deceased, was alive then and began taking the crew to Canada in the early ’60s and did so until 1995 when he turned 80. From then on, because of all Ben had done for “the boys” and because he so enjoyed these hunting trips, the tables turned and they began taking Ben to Canada every October on those hunts until he turned 90. Three of this crew are still making these hunting trips to Saskatchewan, the most recent being last fall. So to say they’ve seen a few strange things over their decoys would be an understatement. But this bird had them all stumped.

They decided they needed better photographs. One of the five hunting buddies is Dave Swanson whose wife Sandy Swanson is an award-winning wildlife photographer, so she dusted off her telephoto lens, set up a blind near the pond and fortunately the goose returned, and Sandy got some great photos. It wasn’t long before Sandy had the mystery bird identified as a bar-headed goose native to Asia.

Extensive bird-banding research has been done for decades on waterfowl in both the Eastern and western hemispheres. But a banded bar-headed goose has never turned up in North America nor has any evidence been found that would prove that a bar-headed goose has ever migrated from Asia through North America.

According to a 2019 article in The Atlantic magazine, much has been learned through bird-banding and electronic GPS tracking about the bar-headed goose, which migrates 5,000 miles twice a year between its breeding grounds in China, over the Himalayas, to its wintering grounds in India. This flight over the Himalayas requires these birds to reach an altitude of at least 24,000 feet (some say 29,000 feet) and this is no small task in the thin air and puts the Bar-headed Goose high on the list of the world’s highest flying birds.

So how did it get to north-metro Minnesota? That’s a question only guesses can answer and we’ll never be sure.

The bar-headed goose is sometimes kept in captivity and has escaped or been deliberately released into Florida, but there is no evidence that the population is breeding and may only persist due to continuing releases or escapes. Since this bird in Minnesota was mingled in with a gaggle of Canada geese, maybe this bar-headed goose was just part of their flock, following them up from the south where it had been in captivity, but now is roaming with wild geese.

We’ll never know of course. But one must admit, it is a treat to see, and to photograph such a rare bird so far from its native lands.

Categories: Tim Lesmeister

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