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Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle


  • Most active early morning and late afternoon (Frith 1967)
  • Roost at night (Frith 1967)


  • Usually feed twice a day (Frith and Davies 1961)
    • Morning
      • Fly from roosts to feeding areas at dawn
      • Return to lagoon edges after a couple of hours
      • Spend more time feeding during the dry season
    • Late afternoon
      • Fly to feeding areas
      • Return to roost at dusk
      • Often move to feeding areas earlier on cooler/rainy days
    • Night
      • If disturbed, may feed at night instead of during the day
  • When wild rice is abundant, may feed intermittently, all day (Frith and Davies 1961)

Movements and Dispersal

Highly mobile

  • Frequently move within a floodplain and among floodplains (Morton et al. 1990)
  • Large flocks break into smaller groups for feeding and roosting (Davies 1963)
    • Densities more concentrated during the dry season (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
  • May move long distances in search of water, food, and breeding sites, especially during the wet season (Frith and Davies 1961; Traill, Bradshaw, and Brook 2010; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017, except as noted)
    • Not truly migratory
    • Seek nesting habitat in the early wet season and feeding areas in the dry season (Morton et al. 1990; Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
    • May move farther and more inland during drought
    • In one study, longest linear distance traveled was 114 km (71 mi) over 38 weeks
  • Adults usually move farther than subadults (Traill, Bradshaw, and Brook 2010)
  • Some birds remain or return to the same area after many years (Frith 1977)
  • Occasional reports outside normal range (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
  • Evidence of a flyway between northern Queensland and southern New Guinea across the Torres Strait (Roshier et al. 2012; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)

Social Behavior

Social relationships

  • Form strong breeding group bonds (male–female, or male and 2-3 females) (Johnsgard 1961; Johnsgard 1965; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
    • Similar to geese and swans
    • Thought to be lifelong
  • Dominance within a breeding group
    • Male is dominant to female(s) (Davies 1963; Frith 1967)
    • One female is dominant to other female(s) (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Persistent calling behavior observed in flocks (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • May aid group cohesion


  • Form large flocks on floodplains (Bayliss and Yeomans 1990; Morton et al. 1990; Traill and Brook 2011, except as noted)
    • Feeding aggregations and large nesting colonies typically form at the start of the wet season (Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
    • Flocks are composed of breeding groups (Davies 1963; Frith 1967)
      • Breeding group membership stable, but composition of the larger flocks changes (Frith 1967)
  • Benefits of aggregation behavior
    • Improved foraging for corms (e.g., Eleocharis) (Traill and Brook 2011)
    • Protection
      • Of eggs from predators during the wet season (Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
      • When alarmed, cluster together and quickly walk away from potential danger (Davies 1963; Frith 1967)
        • May take flight, if very alarmed
        • Goslings also group together when fearful
  • Flock density
    • Individuals spaced out within the flock (Davies 1963)
      • Maintain “personal distance”
    • Daily patterns
      • Breeding groups disperse to feed and to roost (Frith 1967)
        • Attracted to aggregations they fly over
      • Attracted to larger groups on the ground or in flight (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Seasonal patterns
      • Density of Magpie Geese higher around permanent or semi-permanent bodies of water (Bayliss and Yeomans 1990; Delaney et al. 2009)
        • High from June to October (Traill, Whitehead, et al. 2009)
          • Especially concentrated during late dry season, October-November (Delaney et al. 2009)
      • At onset of wet season, disperse across floodplain (Bayliss and Yeomans 1990; Delaney et al. 2009)
        • Densities increase again as breeding colonies form
      • Group size decreases when dry season ends and corms become less available (Traill and Brook 2011)
  • Sex ratios (Davies 1963; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Non-breeding season
      • Approximately 1:1
    • Breeding season
      • Females outnumber males in breeding colonies
      • Males outnumber females in non-breeding colonies
  • Colony size
    • Up to 42 km2 (16 mi2) (Frith and Davies 1961)
  • Geographical differences in abundance
    • Immense flocks (“colonies”) in the Northern Territory of Australia (Morton et al. 1990)
      • Frith (1967) states up to 80,000, but about 5,000 is more typical
      • Morton et al. (1990) report floodplain systems with 80,000-350,000 individuals present
        • Perhaps as high as 500,000 individuals
    • New Guinea
      • Up to 10,000 individuals in a group (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)

Flight groups

(Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)

  • Flying between feeding and roosting areas
    • About 200-300 individuals
  • Largest groups
    • Thousands of individuals or more


  • Habitats
    • Dry banks on marsh edges (Morton et al. 1990)
    • Trees in wet woodlands (Frith and Davies 1961; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • On water in deep wetlands (Frith 1967; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Daily patterns
    • Roost at night and between feeding bouts (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Fidelity to roost site
    • Breeding groups do not roost in the same place each night (Frith 1967)
  • Seasonal patterns
    • Dry season (Bayliss and Yeomans 1990)
      • Roosting and feeding areas occur



  • Adults
    • Loud, resonant honks (Frith 1967; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
      • Given as spaced calls or in rapid succession
      • Honks of female of higher pitch than male
      • Females typically return calls of male in breeding group
    • “Uplift Call” (Davies 1963; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017, except as noted)
      • Functions
        • Defense of territory
        • Advertising status (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Posture
        • Upright stance
        • Bill jerked upward, while giving single honks
          • Bill movements may sometimes be absent
      • Often given by male
    • “Alarm Call” (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
      • Similar to Uplift Call, but more insistent
      • Very high pitched when distressed
      • Posture
        • Alert
    • “Concert Calls” (Davies 1963; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
      • Stretch neck, open and close bill, and vocalize
        • Rapid, repeated honks
          • Can become trill-like
      • Given as duet between family members
        • Adults and young
      • Functions
        • Greeting
        • Breeding pair formation and bonding
        • Threat/aggression
        • Display after successful defense of territory
        • Prior to flight
    • Hissing (Johnsgard 1961)
      • Functions
        • Defense of nest
      • Given by male
        • Accompanied by rapid open/close of bill and raised feathers
  • Goslings and juveniles
    • High, hissing whistles when begging for food (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
    • Chittering noises made by rapidly opening and closing bill (Johnsgard 1965)
    • Honking calls develop at 6-8 months of age (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

Aggression among conspecifics

  • Behaviors
    • Threat (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Stare and walk toward opponent
    • Lunge (Davies 1963)
    • Chase (Davies 1963)
    • Claw (Davies 1963)
    • “Concert Calls” (Davies 1963)
    • May rise into the air and beat each other with wings and strike with feet and bill (Davies 1963; Johnsgard 1965)
  • Adults
    • Fighting maintains dominance hierarchy (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • More common while feeding (Davies 1963; Frith 1967)
      • Flocks occur at higher densities
    • Dominant female in a breeding group pecks subordinate female(s) (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Goslings
    • Compete for food provided by parents (Kear 1973)
    • Behaviors (Davies 1963)
      • Pecking
      • Concerting (see above)
      • Goslings grip each other’s bills
        • Attempt to wrestle opponent to the ground

Passive defense

  • Raise neck when alarmed (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Survey surroundings
    • Often accompanied by head shaking
      • Ritualized behavior indicating tendency to flee

Active defense

  • When alarmed, cluster together and quickly walk away from potential danger (Davies 1963; Frith 1967)
    • May take flight, if very alarmed
    • Goslings group together when fearful
  • Also see “Defense of Eggs” in Parental Care

Territorial Behavior


  • Defend nest site from predators (Davies 1963) and neighboring breeding groups of Magpie Geese (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Territories not maintained after hatching (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Do not defend feeding territories, but compete for food (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

Other Behaviors

Social learning

  • Ability to recognize predators may, in part, be learned from flock members (Davies 1962a)

Mutual preening

  • Observed when taking over nest care duties for a breeding partner (Johnsgard 1961)

Ecological Role

Indicator species

  • Used in assessments of potential impacts of large-scale agriculture on natural systems (especially freshwater systems) (Bayliss and Ligtermoet 2017)

Interspecies Interactions

Relationship with humans

  • Important species in bird-watching tourism (Steven et al. 2015)
  • Human-wildlife conflict where rice is cultivated (Frith 1967)
    • Little impact on agriculture (Frith 1967)
    • Geese controlled using nets and limited permitted take (Delaney et al. 2009)

Feral pigs

  • Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) are the major feral ungulate pest of Magpie Geese habitats in Northern Australia (Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
    • Populations in Kakadu region increased following reductions in water buffalo densities in the 1980s
      • See below
  • Impacts (Whitehead 1998b; Bayliss et al. 2017; Pettit, Naiman, Warfe 2017
    • Pigs compete with Magpie Geese for critical food (E. dulchis corms)
    • Digging damages soil conditions

Feral water buffalo

(Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018, and as noted)

  • Historical impacts
    • Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) were introduced to river areas of northern Australia in the early 1800s (e.g., Ens et al. 2016; Pettit, Naiman, Warfe 2017)
    • Numbers reduced by a large-scale, nationl eradication program in the 1980s (Bayliss and Yeomans 1990)
      • Substantial reductions in remote areas of northern Australia (Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
    • Where present, water buffalo damaged Magpie Geese nesting and dry season feeding habitats (Corbett et al. 1996)
      • Buffalo grazing and trampling changed plant growth and distribution patterns; grasses used for nesting also displaced by other grasses
    • Magpie Geese were most impacted in Kakadu region
      • Buffalo pet meat industry in Kakadu region substantially reduced buffalo populations
  • Possible future impacts (Peter Bayliss, personal communication, 2018)
    • Numbers of water buffalo increasing on Arnhem Land Plateau (Northern Territory)
      • Appear to be migrating back onto floodplains
      • Could become a problem again, if not managed

Water birds

  • Rarely interact with other waterfowl (Johnsgard 1965)
  • Defend nest from other water birds that approach too closely (Kear 1973)


Walking and running

  • Often move slowly and cautiously (Delacour 1954)
  • Walk and run with ease (Marchant and Higgins 1990)


  • In flight, has somewhat vulture- or stork-like appearance (Johnsgard 1978; Todd 1979, except as noted)
    • Rounded wings
    • Slow wing beat
      • About three times per second (Davies 1963)
  • Lowers body slightly before takeoff (Frith 1967)
    • Necessary to get heavy body into the air
    • Capable of a near vertical takeoff from a standing start (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • May run into wind for added lift (Frith 1967)
  • In flight (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Do not glide, except prior to landing
    • Neck is extended
    • Often in V-formation
  • Can fly 25-30 mph (40-48 kph) (Davies 1963)


  • Rarely swim (Johnsgard 1961; Frith 1967)
    • Swim fairly well (Johnsgard 1965)
  • Float high in the water (Johnsgard 1961)
  • Not known to dive (Johnsgard 1961; Johnsgard 1965)

Taking Flight

Magpie Goose in flight

Breeding groups fly between roosts and feeding areas each day.

Groups are attracted to larger groups on the ground or in flight.

Image credit: © Graham Winterflood via Flickr, Creative Commons License BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Image location: Queensland, Australia

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