posted December 7th, 2011; last edited August 20th, 2012 –– David Sibley

Identification of white geese

Recent discussion of the identification of a white goose in Ohio (beginning here) prompted me to put together some sketches of bill shapes of Ross’s and Snow Geese, since bill shape is the most significant difference between those species. It was a very interesting exercise, as each species is surprisingly consistent in the relative size and proportions of head and bill, suggesting that the overall impression of bill size is a fairly reliable (though subjective) feature, and there are some other details that allow a more objective identification.

Tracings of head and bill shapes of white geese, adjusted so head sizes match, to emphasize differences in proportions. Original pencil sketches copyright David Sibley.

The middle column of presumed hybrids is traced from three individual birds. In the middle is one from Kentucky (photograph by David Roemer here) that seems to be a straightforward intermediate bird and almost certainly a hybrid. The upper presumed hybrid is from Oklahoma, the smallest-billed of the three (traced from a photograph by Victor Fazio here) and the bottom presumed hybrid is the contentious Ohio individual (traced from a photo by Matt Valencic here).

Besides absolute bill size, the features that seem most useful for distinguishing Ross’s from Snow and from potential hybrids are:

  • faint or absent “grin patch” – Ross’s usually show a small and inconspicuous dark line, Snow Geese an obvious black oval. This is related to the following…
  • lower mandible nearly straight on Ross’s, strongly curved on Snow, and slightly curved on hybrids
  • border of feathering at base of bill relatively straight on Ross’s, curved on Snow – this is somewhat variable in Ross’s, and seems even more variable in hybrids (if these three are really hybrids), but Snow always has the border strongly curved, and Ross’s straight or slightly curved.
  • As a measure of bill length, on Ross’s the bill is always obviously shorter than the thickness at the top of the neck, on Snow the bill length is greater than neck thickness, and hybrids intermediate.
  • Round head – There is little difference in forehead slope, but Ross’s show a high rounded crown so that head of Ross’s can be described as a circle, while on Snow Goose (and hybrids) the head is more oval.

I still maintain that the Ohio bird fits into the “hybrid” column better than the Ross’s column. There must be backcrosses and maybe even pure Ross’s Geese that blur the distinction between these categories as illustrated, and discovering that will require a more detailed study of variation in a large number of geese. Hopefully these sketches will help the discussion move forward.

2 comments to Identification of white geese

  • Mr. Kupfer


    I enjoy your web site.

    I hope there will be a way to display a full discussion with comments and then print it out the text in full-page format.

    Thank you.

    16 December 2011

  • I came across a couple of Ross’s Geese mixed in with a large flock of greater snow geese at Chincoteague NWR on November 3, 2014. In going over some pictures, I think there is a hybrid snow X ross’s goose mixed in. It was clearly smaller than the snow geese, about the size of the larger of the two ross’s geese, with a bill that was in between in size. The head was rounder than the snow geese and the grin patch was there but smaller.

    What do you think?

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