When I read somewhere that Pygmy Geese were not actually geese at all I started doing some research. I discovered that there are actually a fair number of ducks and other waterfowl that are wrongly called geese. True geese belong to the tribe or sub-family Anserini within the larger family Anatidae that encompasses ducks, geese and swans. Members of the Anserini tribe include the genera Anser (Grey Geese), Chen (White Geese) and Branta (Black Geese). So any birds that don’t belong to these genera can be considered either ducks or swans or something else.
Orinoco Geese, Egyptian Geese and the genus Chloephaga that includes South American “geese” like the Andean Geese are all in fact ducks. Others are not so clearly defined. For example, the African Spur-winged Geese and the Blue-winged Geese suggest a close lineage to ducks but with some strange attributes. The Cape Barren Geese of Australia are sometimes placed with the true geese and swans, sometimes with the shelducks and sometimes within a separate tribe called Cereopsinae. And the Magpie Geese of the same country are believed to be neither ducks nor geese nor swans and are now placed within their own family Anseranatidae.
So where does that leave the Pygmy Geese, of which there are three distinct species? Well, the Pygmy Geese complex are actually all ducks belonging to the genus Nettapus. But they are not just any ducks. For these birds, the smallest of all waterfowl, belong to the “perching duck” group. It is generally accepted that perching ducks are indeed ducks but their affinities with true dabbling ducks are uncertain and therefore their classification demands careful attention.Whatever their strange lineage, these diminutive waterfowl are incredible birds.
The three distinct species are the Green Pygmy Goose of Australia and New Guinea, the Cotton Pygmy Goose of Asia and the African Pygmy Goose of obvious geography. Of the three species, the African Pygmy Goose and the Cotton Pygmy Goose are the smallest waterfowl in the world, with the African Pygmy Goose weighing a mere 260-280 grams! And of the the three species, the African species is without debate the most gorgeous.
These fascinating small ducks are found in central and southern Africa south of the Sahara, including the island of Madagascar. Typically they are very shy, preferring to sit motionless and relying on camouflage to avoid detection. But they seldom allow a close approach and will take off at the slightest indication that they have been detected. African Pygmy Geese are incredibly swift and maneuverable in flight and they will generally fly off some distance before alighting again in suitable habitat.
Their habitat requirements are pretty specific in that they need significant plant-cover. For this reason, places like the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the pan systems of northern-eastern South Africa are good places to find these delightful ducks. Most favored are shallow waterbodies that contain both plenty of water-lillies and surrounding reed-beds.
On our filming trip to Botswana we found that one of the most productive areas for these birds was the Chobe River floodplain and we came across several parties of African Pygmy Geese. One interesting observation was that every group that we came across was evenly numbered in pairs, with groups of two, four, six, eight and sometimes even small flocks of ten or twelve individuals, suggesting strong pair bonds.
So if you ever chance upon these miniature waterfowl, don’t be fooled by their geese-like bills or by their common name. These birds are far-removed from geese in the true sense of the word. For some video insight into the lives of these fascinating ducks, feel free to watch the below episode: