Canada Geese by Ryan Askren

Birds: Canada Goose

The Canada Goose was named for our American neighbors to the north, or so I thought. Those loud, sonorous geese fly up there for breeding seasons, and then return to parts of the US in the fall and winter, so it must be a geographic name reference, right?

Not so, said one of our Grand Canyon River guides: “It’s named after a guy whose name happened to be Canada!” Our boatman was insistent that the Canada Goose was named after John Canada, who was the ornithologist and taxidermist who distinguished it from other world-wide species of geese.

The John Canada reference sounded geographically honking to me, so it was time to do some investigation. Luckily for me, lots of spade work has been done on this topic.

Canada or Canadian?

The vast majority of English speaking people call the goose that is large and has a black head a Canadian Goose. However, according to some its original name was a CANADA Goose, not Canadian Goose. Q: We have Canadian Bacon and Canadian Whiskey, shouldn’t we call them Canadian geese?

As I have been taught, the official name for any bird is its Latin name. So the “real” name for this creature is Branta canadensis. That’s because the bird probably has 200 different names in 200 different languages, based on its: colors, sounds, habitat or many other reasons. Birds get named after people, habits, and all sorts of things. The Latin name is the same around the world for birds to distinguish the different species, no matter the country of origin or it’s breeding grounds.

So it seems true that at one point in time Branta canadensis was called a Canada Goose, because it was often seen flying towards Canada and living there. You could now just as easily call it a North American Goose since it is found all over North America and lives just about anywhere. It has adapted to live all across the US and into Mexico too. Over the years, the name among us English amateurs has changed to “Canadian Goose.” Just like people in the 1600’s used to call pumpkins “Pompions” and call vegetables “potherbs,” we typically call the Branta canadensis Canadian Geese.

Canada Geese taking off

Standard dictionaries and bird guides I’ve consulted, reflecting popular usage, list “Canada Goose” as the common name for the North American bird, though some of them include “Canadian goose” as a variant usage. Birders and ornithologists generally accept the popular usage when referring to the goose by its English name.

The website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example, refers to the bird as “Canada goose” and describes it this way: “A familiar and widespread goose with a black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan to cream breast and brown back.” The National Audubon Society refers to the bird online as “Canada goose,” and notes, “This big ‘Honker’ is among our best-known waterfowl.”

In 1758, the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus included the Canada goose in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, which classified animals, plants, and minerals. But Linnaeus, writing in Latin, didn’t use the term “Canada goose.” He referred to the bird as Anas canadensis, a protonym, or early version, of the now-accepted scientific name, Branta canadensis, or “black goose of Canada.” [1]

The earliest reference to the bird in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1772 citation from Hudson’s Bay Birds, by Johann Reinhold Forster: “The Canada geese are very plentiful at Hudson’s Bay.” In addition to “Canada goose,” the Oxford English Dictionary cites “Canada jay,” “Canada potato” (Jerusalem artichoke), “Canada rice” (an aquatic grass), “Canada thistle,” “Canada violet,” and others. It did not reference Canadian bacon or whisky at the time. [2]

In his journal entries, Meriwether Lewis (on May 15, 1805) wrote in his report to President Jefferson, that he had spotted and identified “a small species of geese, which differ considerably from the common canadian goose.” He also called a portion of the Assinniboin River, “Goose Egg,” because of the circumstances that had occurred to Capt. William Clark. In an unsportsman-like episode, “Clark was shooting a goose while on her nest in the top of a lofty cottonwood tree, from which we afterwards took one egg. The wild geese frequently build their nests in this manner, at least we have already found several in trees, nor have we as yet seen any on the ground, or sand bars where I had supposed from previous information that they most commonly (lay) deposited their eggs.” [3] Not sure if this bird was from Canada.

J. J. Audubon, Canada Goose, plate 201

And in his prolific treasure trove, The Birds of America (1827-39), John James Audubon uses the attributive noun: “The Canada Geese are fond of returning regularly to the place which they have chosen for resting in, and this they continue to do until they find themselves greatly molested while there.” Audubon, who shoots nearly all of his bird species before painting them, described his marksmanship strategy in his manuscript, Ornithological Biography (1835). Audubon describes a “curious mode of shooting the Canada Goose I have practised with much success.” Audubon says he sinks a hogshead in the sand, covers himself with brushwood, “and in this concealment I have killed several at a shot; but the stratagem answers for only a few nights in the season.” [3]

Another theory is that English speakers use the attributive noun “Canada” for the goose because canadensis  in the scientific Latin name means “of Canada.” Bird enthusiasts tout the names of species with such avian adjectival examples as the American crow, the Cuban parakeet, and the Jamaican lizard cuckoo, along with attributive examples like the California condor, the Carolina wren, the Arizona woodpecker, and the Louisiana waterthrush. [4]

As a follow-up to the comment from our river guides down the Grand Canyon, I found this entry: “And the silliest one is that John Canada—described variously as an ornithologist, a taxonomist, or a taxidermist—named the bird for himself.” The authors stated that they had NOT found “a shred of evidence to confirm this or that such a person even existed.” [5]

So to debunk the bird name guessers, I am inclined to believe that there is no such person as John Canada in the world of goose naming. And you can call the goose whatever works for you. I am good with Canada or Canadian; they are all maple-leaf to me.

Geese in Chevron Flight


[1] Linnaeus used Anas, classical Latin for duck, as the genus for all ducks, geese and swans. Branta, now the genus for black geese, such as Brant’s and Canada Geese, is of unknown origin but may be related to old Germanic names for similarly colored water birds.

[2] https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/item/lc.jrn.1805-04-13

[3] https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/item/lc.jrn.1805-04-13

[4] https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/canada-goose

[5] https://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/viewtopic.php?id=452