Pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

The pink-footed goose breeds in east Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. In Svalbard, it is the most common species of goose and also the largest of the three species of geese that nest in Svalbard. Compared to the barnacle goose and the brent goose, the pink-footed goose is better able to protect themselves and their eggs against predators such as the arctic fox. This enables the species to breed further inland than the other two.

Pink-footed goose, Anser brachyrhynchus

Pink-footed goose. Photo: Tore Nordstad / Norwegian Polar Institute

The pink-footed goose is the largest of the three species of geese that nest in Svalbard. It has grey-brown plumage and generally looks similar to the small bean goose (A. fabalis), but pink-footed geese have a shorter neck and bill and pink legs. The pink legs can be difficult to see at a distance or in poor light. Like other grey geese the upper-part of the wings contrasts deeply with the light front and the dark fore-wings, which can be seen clearly when the birds are in flight. They are 60–75 cm long and weigh 2.2–2.7 kg. The sexes look virtually identical.

Juveniles resemble the adults, though the former has more mottled plumage and the legs are often yellowish.

The sounds made by pink-footed geese have a higher tone than those of the bean goose or the greylag goose (A. anser); most often it emits disyllablic notes.

Distribution

The pink-footed goose breeds in east Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. In Svalbard, it is the most common species of goose. They nest primarily in western Svalbard, mostly in the large fjords of Spitsbergen. They are scarce in the eastern parts of the archipelago, but they do occur on the western parts of Edgeøya, Barentsøya and Nordaustlandet as well as in the north of Spitsbergen. A small population breeds on Bjørnøya.

Svalbard pink-footed geese comprise a separate population from this species in other areas; the Svalbard pink-foots winter in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. They migrate southwards via the Norwegian mainland to autumn staging areas in Denmark and the Netherlands. Pink-footed geese from Greenland and Iceland winter in the British Isles. There is a small exchange of individuals between the two populations, especially in severe winters. The pink-footed goose arrives in Svalbard during the two first weeks of May, when there is still extensive snow cover. It leaves the archipelago in September-October.

Ecology

The pink-footed goose nests on small islands off the coast as well as in inland tundra areas. The species breeds either as isolated pairs or in loose colonies. High concentrations of nests are found at the base of steep grassy slopes, especially close to seabird colonies.

Flocks of juveniles and moulting adults are found along the coast of Svalbard during summer. The staging areas during migration and their wintering areas are usually cultivated agricultural land or shore-flats.

Pink-footed geese are herbivores, which utilize both the green and root parts of plants. They appear to actively select nutritious food. This species must build up considerable energetic reserves during winter and summer in order to complete their long migrations in spring and autumn, respectively.

Compared to the barnacle goose and the brent goose, the pink-footed goose is better able to protect themselves and their eggs against predators such as the arctic fox. This enables the species to breed further inland than the two other species of geese in Svalbard.

Life history and reproduction

The nest is placed on a ledge along a mountain slope or on some other point of elevation in the terrain that provides a good view of the surroundings. Former nest sites are re-used, and these become recognizable because their elevated rims become vegetated. The nest scrape is lined with plant material and large amounts of down. During the pre-nesting period the females feed intensively to build up the fat reserves.

Egg-laying commences during the first days of June. The normal clutch size is four (but it can range from three to five). The eggs are white, but often become a dirty yellow-brown during the 26–27 days incubation period. Only the female incubates, while the male remains nearby guarding his mate.

The young abandon the nest soon after hatching and are fledged about eight weeks later. After hatching the adults moult their plumage and lose the ability to fly for several weeks while their flight feathers regrow. Families stay together until the northward migration the following spring.

Most birds become sexually mature when they are three years of age. The oldest pink-footed goose registered in Norway (including Svalbard) is 22 years.

Management status and monitoring

The Svalbard pink-footed goose population has increased considerably over recent decades. Annual counts made at their wintering areas during October/November indicate that the population was 81,500 individuals in spring 2013.

The Svalbard population is hunted in Svalbard, mainland Norway and Denmark during the autumn. The harvest in Svalbard is quite low, but the total harvest is significant.

The pink-footed goose is quite timid and abandons the nest when disturbed by humans. When the nest is unprotected the eggs are an easy target for arctic foxes and glaucous gulls. During the moulting period the geese occur in large groups that are very wary. They can be alarmed by helicopters at distances up to several kilometres away and by people moving about in the moulting areas on foot or in motorized vehicles. When disturbed they tend to swim far out to sea for security (or they will run off on land). If such escapes are frequently required it can reduce their condition and put them at greater risk during migration.

MOSJ indicators (Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen):

Awaiting results from MOSJ…