An Epic Journey: Snow Goose Migrations

By Nick Johnson

I can recall as a kid, staring blindly into the cobalt-blue spring sky searching for the source of strange bark sounds and low murmuring chatter. Brilliant white specks would appear, heading northward signaling that the annual spring snow goose migration was well underway. I never fathomed the journey that these geese traveled yet I admired the big flocks as they rode the air currents high above me in strung out, undulating rhythms.

A truly amazing feat, waterfowl migrations are one of the greatest natural spectacles in North America. Snow goose migrations are among the longest, spanning from the far artic regions of the north to wintering grounds as far south as the Texas and Mexico coastlines.

The Population

The current snow goose population has exploded in the past few decades. The blame for this has been put largely on the advancements in agricultural practices which help fuel the geese on their southward and northward journeys. The population has increased roughly 300% since the mid 1970s with a current annual increase of roughly 5%. This estimate does not include non-breeding individuals, which are juveniles and some adults so the actual population is projected to be higher than the estimated figures. Over five million snow geese migrate through the Central and Mississippi flyways currently.

The Impact of Ag

Agriculture has come a long way in the last century and waterfowl enthusiasts have seen first hand the power that crops possess on movements and patterns of ducks and geese. Historically, snow geese fed in coastal areas where they dig with their powerful beaks in the soils for plant material and other food resources. They made the transition to crop feeding in the mid to late 1900s and did so in a rapid fashion. Nowadays, the most common way to hunt snow geese is to find a crop field where they are feeding and set up on them much like field hunting for ducks and Canada geese.

The first crop transition for snow geese was rice planted in southern fields along their coastal wintering grounds. Within a decade, they had mastered field feeding, transitioning to wheat, corn, soybeans and a host of other crops.

Migration Facts

When it comes to long distance waterfowl migration, the snow goose is king. In flight, these gregarious birds can reach speeds of nearly 50 mph, which enables them to cover large expanses of land in little time. They often fly at altitudes of 3,000 to 8,000 feet or more and flocks are fully capable of covering more than 500 miles in a single flight. Their flights become more rapid and long ranging late into the fall and late into the spring, or when inclement weather pushes them from a region. The snow pack in the springtime usually dictates the northward advancement of the snow goose migration.

Historically, snow geese wintered along the southern coastline of North America. With their methodical switch to crop-based food resources, snow geese now winter much farther north in states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, the Central Valley of California and even southern Missouri.


National Wildlife Refuges are important stopover points for many species of migrating waterfowl, snow geese included. Some of the largest refuge systems may incorporate 20% or more of the migrating snow goose population within the Central and Mississippi flyways at peak times. Refuges also create a valued source of birds for hunters that hunt the surrounding ground where the birds leave the refuge and feed in.

Major Stopovers

Des Lacs NWR, ND
Devils Lake, ND
Sand Lake, SD
De Soto NWR, IA, NE
Squaw Creek NWR, MO
Boyer Chute NWR, IA
Big Muddy NWR, MO
Rainwater Basin, NE
Swan Lake NWR, MO

Fun Fact

Snow goose nesting success has been shown to increase when clutches are raised near nesting snowy owls. The owls are thought to aid in the deterrence of predators to the nesting grounds as they defend their own nests.