Upland_Goose_Chloephaga_picta_leucopteraThe race of Upland Goose Chloephaga picta leucoptera found in the Falklands is unique. Scientists have observed that it is diverging in an evolutionary sense from its continental cousin, the Magellan goose. Falkland birds are sedentary and much tamer. Only occasionally, the smaller continental bird, in which the male also has barred underparts, is seen in the Islands. The Falkland race has never been recorded from the mainland of South America. The Falkland population may be as high as 150,000 pairs.

A pair of Upland Geese, male on the left and female on the right.

Ruddy-headed_Goose_Chloephaga_rubidicepsRuddy-headed Goose Chloephaga rubidiceps is also very special. This species was once numerous in Tierra del Fuego, but has been driven to the brink of extinction there by man, decimated by the introduction of the Patagonian grey fox and shooting in its winter quarters. The Falklands now hold most of the world population of this attractive little goose, which is classified as Near Threatened by BirdLife International. It is fairly common in the Islands, though less numerous than the Upland Goose. The population was estimated at up to 27,000 pairs in 1997.

Both species often associate together, especially near low-lying coasts.

Description

Female Upland Goose in flight.
(Photo: Alan Henry)

Upland Goose
The male Upland Goose is a handsome bird with his white plumage barred and marked with black. He has black legs and is usually larger than his mate. In general, where the male Upland is white his mate is cinnamon brown. She has a rusty-brown head and neck, brown breast and flanks barred black and dark yellow legs.

The female Upland Goose is broadly similar to both sexes of the Ruddy-headed Goose, but she has a heavier head and bill, and her rusty neck colour continues into the barred breast.

Ruddy headed-Goose
This bird is much smaller than the Upland Goose and it has a distinctive white eye ring. The bright chestnut head and upper neck are sharply divided from the finely barred grey and black lower neck and breast. The flanks are closely barred black, the belly and under tail are chestnut and this bright colour is even noticeable when the bird is swimming.

Behaviour and Breeding

Behaviour is similar for both species in the Falkland Islands.

upland_goose_nest

The nest is constructed of grasses and other soft vegetation, and lined with down.

In August or September mated pairs (they usually pair up for life) occupy a feeding territory, which they defend vigorously. Territorial fights are sometimes long and vicious: combatant males can be seriously injured or even killed. Favoured territorial areas are penguin greens, naturally fertile areas along valley bottoms and by ponds and fertilised grassland or reseeds near settlements.

Ruddy-headed Goose with goslings

Ruddy-headed Goose with goslings.
(Photo: Alan Henry)

Three to eight eggs are laid. Incubation is the task of the female, while the male stands guard nearby. When the young hatch they may spend up to 15 hours in the nest being brooded and drying out. They then leave, never to return, and head for water and the nearest areas of grazing. The goslings feed independently from the start.

First and second year birds too young to breed and failed breeders form large flocks to moult at regularly used sites. Flight feathers are shed simultaneously and the birds become flightless for a period of about 5 weeks. Flocks of these ‘shedders’ are often harassed by farmers. It would appear that successful breeding birds go without moulting, sometimes skipping moult three years in succession. This is unusual, since adequate flight feathers are essential in most species for migration and to escape ground predators. However, Falkland Upland Geese do not migrate and are usually reluctant to take flight.

A breeding pair may rear up to five goslings to the free-flying stage. Once the young can fly, the family’s attachment to their feeding territory wanes, as does their aggressive attitude. The family unit remains together during the winter and will often form loose groups with others at favoured feeding sites.

Threats

Problems arise over the passion these geese have for grasses – an interest shared by sheep.

Upland Geese grazing on fertilised grassland.

For many years they were heavily persecuted in the Falklands, not helped by the birds being ridiculously tame. Bounties were paid for beaks. It has been estimated that at least 25,000 geese were killed each year in the late 1970s under farm schemes. However, a number of studies show that the geese take only a small proportion of herbage and moreover, goose droppings are more nutritious than much of the grass, and sheep eat droppings. Geese are a particular problem only on reseeded pastures. In the last thirty years there has been a more enlightened attitude towards these geese, and they are no longer persecuted to anything like the same extent, though Upland Geese are still classed as pests.

Upland Geese are regarded in the Falkland Islands as a good alternative to mutton; their fresh eggs are enjoyed by many local people and full-grown geese are a delicacy when they have been feeding on diddle-dee berries in the autumn.