Ask a naturalist – Wait, don’t geese migrate?


Q: Don’t geese migrate south in the fall? How come I saw some around here during the winter?

Many of us learned about bird migration as kids in school, so we know that many birds spend summers in Minnesota and migrate south to a warmer climate for winter. However, from our own observations we also know that not all birds migrate. American crows, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and of course pigeons are all common sights in Minneapolis all year. There are other more reclusive species that stick around too, such as various owls and woodpeckers. For certain species, like dark-eyed juncos, Minnesota is the ‘south’ they migrate to—with summers spent in the northern forests of Canada and winters here where the snow is less deep.

Then there are Canada Geese; familiar bird of waterways, golf courses, and parking lots. “Everyone” knows geese migrate south in the fall— flying in their V-shaped formations and honking overhead—signaling the change of seasons. Observant winter walkers however, see some of those Canada Geese hanging around here all winter, usually by a stream or river. What gives?

It helps to know why birds migrate in the first place. Though Minnesota is famous for cold winters, the physical cold is actually not why most birds migrate. Birds are covered in feathers, and if you’ve ever used a down coat or comforter you’re aware that feathers are a great insulator to keep warm. Additionally, birds’ feet have special features that keep them from freezing. These traits allow birds to tolerate decreasing winter temperatures very well.

The reason to migrate all comes down to food. Birds that eat mostly seeds, like cardinals, remain here— since seeds are still available in the winter. Insect eaters such as tree swallows, on the other hand, are pretty much out of luck. These birds have to migrate in order to follow the food sources they need. Waterfowl eat a variety of foods including aquatic plants, seeds and insects. Access to open water is needed to acquire aquatic food during winter, but as long as there is enough open water, why spend energy migrating?

There are actually seven different subspecies of Canada Goose, which vary in size, coloration and migratory behavior. Geese that summer in northern Canada do undertake a long migration, usually to the southern U.S. Others will only migrate just far enough to find open water. However, an increasing number of the largest subspecies, the Giant Canada Goose, have formed resident (year-round) populations in nearly all of the contiguous U.S. after nearly going extinct early in the 20th Century. Wildlife biologists do not fully understand this shift in Canada Goose migration patterns, which could be attributed to a combination of factors from habitat loss and altered natural environments to agricultural practices and warmer winter temperatures. In any case, these birds no longer need to fly so far south to find favorable conditions over the winter.

As the ice melts this time of year, we see the return of waterfowl that had left to find open water during the coldest part of winter; followed by songbirds moving between winter and summer grounds. By late May, all of our migratory birds will have returned to Minnesota for the riotous, bird-song filled season we call summer.

Find out more about birds, the first Saturday each month during our Early Birding hike with a naturalist. Or visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi (located at the east end of 49th Ave N. along the river) to check out a pair of binoculars and try spotting a bald eagle or geese along the river. Celebrate Earth Day with us on Sunday, April 22 from 1-3 p.m.! Bring your family for free Earth Day activities, naturalist programs and face painting. If you have young children, join the fun with our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.

April Free Public Programs: April 7—Early Birding: search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.; April 14—Hike: Spring Ephemerals: can you find the first flowers of the season? 1:30-2:30 p.m.; April 22—Family Funday: Earth Day Celebration: fun activities and park clean-up, 1-3 p.m.; and April 28—Nature Art: May Day Baskets: craft a basket filled with handmade flowers, 2-3 p.m.

Kids Spring Break Camps (ages 6-12) April 2-6, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., $150. Animal Scientists: conduct experiments and create concoctions that ooze and explode!

Find program registration and more at or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article. Earth Day is this month! Create a drawing or take a picture of ways to keep the Earth healthy. Then show a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of April. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!

Written by Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist, North Mississippi Regional Park