Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis


Justification of Red List category
This species has a moderately small population which appears to be declining over a short time period. The reasons for this decline are largely unknown. Trend calculations are complicated by interannual variation in survey coverage and reporting across its range. Small populations of other Arctic breeding geese have shown dramatic population fluctuations and this may prove to be the case for this species. The species is precautionarily listed as Vulnerable, however if it is found that recent increases are genuine and not a result of improved monitoring efforts or range shifts the species may warrant further downlisting.

Population justification
Coordinated censuses in January 2003, 2004 and 2005 resulted in total population estimates of 33,600, 52,800 and 32,100 individuals respectively. The geometric mean of these totals 38,500. Recalculating this including the 2006 count of c.34,000 gives a revised geometric mean of 37,000 individuals. However, total counts of 40,800 in spring 2008 (primarily as a result of a large count in Kalmykia), 44,300 the following winter (Cranswick et al. 2010) and a potential population count of 56,860 in autumn 2010 (Rozenfeld 2011a) lend further weight to the suggestion that counts in the mid 2000s might be partially incomplete because birds wintered away from the traditionally surveyed sites. In 2015, Wetlands International increased its global population estimate from c. 44,000 to c. 56,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2015).

Trend justification

Variation in survey intensity and coverage historically makes determination of trends difficult. Following a count of 60,000 in the mid 1950s, totals rarely exceeded 20,000 until intensive winter surveys in the 1990s recorded over 70,000. Two counts of just under 90,000 in the late 1990s were considered accurate (Aarvak et al. 1996, D. Hulea in litt. 2003) and an increase since the 1970s. Coordinated winter counts were then initiated in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine since 1995, with at least one count in each winter month. Only around 30,000 were recorded in the early 2000s. It has been suggested that some birds may have been overlooked, wintering further east than expected (in eastern Ukraine or south-west Russia) where survey coverage was much less comprehensive or absent, though no new wintering sites have been found. Numbers recorded during winter surveys recovered slightly, with an average of 37,300 during the mid 2000s (S. Dereliev in litt. to Wetlands International 2005), but representing a decline of more than 50% since the late 1990s.

Counts during migration periods since 2008 have recorded larger numbers, e.g. 40,800 in spring 2008 in Kalmykia, 56,860 in autumn 2010 in Northern Kazakhstan (Rozenfeld 2011a) and c. 150,000 individuals in autumn 2012 (Rozenfeld et al. 2012). The use of such areas during migration potentially make survey efforts more effective, concentrating birds that may be widely dispersed during winter, though rapid turnover at sites during migration also presents potential problems of missing or double-counting birds; and differences in methods of generating population estimates may also be leading to the different estimates between migratory stopover points and wintering areas (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). In January 2013, c. 56,000 birds were counted in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine (N. Petkov in litt. 2013), with nearly 54,000 in Bulgaria (Illiev and Petkov 2015); however post-January 2013 numbers in Bulgaria and Romania have failed to reach 30,000 individuals (E. Todorov in litt. 2015). These findings suggest that during milder winters birds may now winter farther east where survey effort is less comprehensive (Cranswick et al. 2012). Recent surveys also suggest that the species may be wintering farther west, with more than 2,000 wintering in Hungary (mainly Hortobágy National Park) in winter 2014-2015 (T. Zalai in litt. 2015). The recently published European Red List of Birds suggests that the European population is declining, but only slightly (BirdLife International 2015). Whilst migration counts suggest a recent increase, further corroboration is required to confirm an accurate current estimate.

Distribution and population

This species breeds on the Taimyr (70% of the population), Gydan and Yamal peninsulas, Russia (Hunter and Black 1996). In winter, prior to the 1950s, much of the population occurred along the western coast of the Caspian Sea, mainly in Azerbaijan, and in Iran and Iraq. The wintering area then rapidly shifted to the western Black Sea coast, and 80-90% of birds now congregate in January/ February at 5-10 roost sites on the Black Sea coast, particularly at Shabla Lakes and Durankulak Lake, Bulgaria, Razelm-Sinoe lagoons, Romania, and in the coastal area between the rivers Danube and Dniester in Ukraine (A. Mikityuk in litt. 1999, Rusev et al. 2008, Cranswick et al. 2010). Small numbers also winter in Azerbaijan. The precise distribution in winter varies according to the severity of the weather from the Crimean peninsula to the Dobrudzha region of Bulgaria. In cold weather, small numbers are occasionally on the Aegean shore of Greece and Turkey (Cranswick et al. 2010); during prolonged mild periods, significant numbers may remain in Kalmykya, Stavropol and Rostov districts in Russia (S. Rozenfeld in litt. 2012). Migration is believed to follow a relatively narrow route south down the Ob to Kazakhstan (though a small number of ringing recoveries and recent satellite tracking data point to some birds passing to the west of the Urals [Simeonov et al. 2014]) and then east to the Black Sea. There are four known main staging areas: the Lower Ob, Middle Ob and Kumo-Manych depression in Russia, and the Northern and Kostanay regions of Kazakhstan. They are also regularly recorded in small numbers on passage in Hungary (e.g. Pigniczki 2008). There may be other, currently unknown, staging sites (several new sites have been identified by satellite tracking [Simeonov et al. 2014]) and knowledge of the migration route, particularly in Siberia, should therefore be considered incomplete. It is also possible that some wintering grounds remain undetected (perhaps in eastern Ukraine and southwest Russia), and use of these areas during mild weather may account for the variation in winter survey totals in recent years.

Maximum population counts from wintering or staging areas were 60,000 between 1967-1970, 25,907 between 1976-1990, 75,879 between 1991-1995, 88,000 in 1996 (Aarvak et al. 1996), 60,444 between 1998-2001 (with a maximum of 88,425 in winter 2000) (D. Hulea in litt. 2003) and 56,860 in 2010 (Rozenfeld 2011a). It is unclear whether these represent genuine population fluctuations or are due to incomplete surveying of the species following suspected alteration its winter distribution (as has been seen in the late 1960s following deterioration of wintering conditions in Azerbaijan) with larger numbers of birds now short-stopping and over-wintering in Ukraine (Rusev et al. 2008, Cranswick et al. 2010) and in areas in Romania (N. Petkov in litt.), where monitoring is more difficult and less comprehensive. Coordinated censuses in January 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 resulted in totals of 33,600, 52,800, 32,100 and c.34,000 respectively, with a mean population estimate of 37,300 (S. Dereliev in litt. to Wetlands International 2005). Total counts recorded 40,800 individuals in spring 2008 and 44,300 in 2009 (Cranswick et al. 2010). In 2015, Wetlands International increased its global population estimate from c.44,000 to c.56,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2015).


It breeds in tundra or scrubby 'wooded' tundra (Madge and Burn 1988, del Hoyo et al. 1992), in close proximity to rivers and gulleys (Madge and Burn 1988). It favours high and dry areas on steep river banks and precipices, low hills, rock outcrops and rocky islands (Kear 2005). Less commonly it inhabits low islands in lowland areas (Kear 2005). Vegetative cover in its preferred habitats is usually thin and includes dwarf birch Betula, willow Salix, and dead grass (Kear 2005). During the non-breeding season it inhabits open steppe and open rolling lowland hills, feeding among steppe, coastal lines, pasture, stubble and crop fields (Madge and Burn 1988). Throughout the day it flies to coastal and freshwater lakes to drink (Kear 2005). Occasionally it also roosts at these lakes, using the middle of the water or remote shallow areas and muddy and sandy beaches with low aquatic vegetation (Kear 2005). It will also roost on frozen lakes or on the sea (Kear 2005). The distribution of geese from year to year depends a lot on differences in lake water levels. On its breeding grounds it feeds primarily on Fabaceae and to a lesser extent grass leaves and the shoots of cotton-grasses Eriophorum angustifolium and E. scheuchzeri (Rosenfeld and Volkov 2001), as well as some Carex and Equisetum spp. (Kear 2005). Wintering geese feed on winter wheat, barley, maize, pasture and steppe grasses and, in Greece, natural grassland (Kear 2005). In Kazakhstan on passage they feed mainly on spilled grain on the fields after harvesting the wheat crops in autumn. They also feed on arid-adapted herbs such as Salicornia (Johnsgard 1978). At migration staging areas the diet is thought to consist largely of grass shoots, supplemented with tubers and rhizomes (Kear 2005), as well as the salt marsh’s galophyte complex of Puccinellia distans and Aeroplus littoralis (Rozenfeld 2011b, Simeonov and Possardt 2012). 

The species nests in hollows and fissures in the ground, usually 50-80 mm deep and 200 mm in diameter (Kear 2005). They are often constructed near to the eyries of birds of prey (Kear 2005), since breeding success may depend on nesting Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Snowy Owl Bubo scandiaca and Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus providing protection from predators (Quinn et al. 1996, Prop and Quinn 2003, Quinn et al. 2003, S. Rozenfeld in litt. 2012). Successful breeding seasons are also associated with good lemming years, and it has been suggested that this may be because predators are sated by the lemming population and so predation of geese is much lower.

This species is highly migratory (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Following the post-breeding moult it migrates southwards over land in mid- to late-September (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Kear 2005), arriving on its wintering grounds in October-November. Here it is highly gregarious and occurs in flocks, regularly in association with the White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons (Madge and Burn 1988) Lesser White-fronted Goose A. erythropus and Greylag Goose A. anser. The return journey is made between March and May (del Hoyo et al. 1992), often together with A. albifrons (Kear 2005). It flies in dense flocks rather than in the defined V-formation typical of other goose species (Kear 2005), and arrives on its breeding grounds in small flocks of 3-15 individuals (Johnsgard 1978). It begins to breed in June in loose colonies, usually of around five to fifteen pairs (Madge and Burn 1988, del Hoyo et al. 1992, S. Rozenfeld in litt. 2012), although up to 37 have been observed (Kear 2005). 


Deliberate hunting of birds occurs in Russia and Kazakhstan (Rozenfeld 2009, 2011b), and results from a recent tagging study suggest mortality owing to hunting could be very high - possibly up to 40% (N. Petkov in litt. 2015, 2016). Following land privatization, and especially the residential and tourist development boom in winter roosting and feeding areas, the quality of roosting areas has decreased. In addition, the low profitability of agriculture has reduced the area under winter wheat cultivation which, together with conversion to other crops, has decreased the availability of food. Some key feeding sites have been lost in Bulgaria (S. Dereliev in litt. 1999). Hunting pressure on waterfowl as a whole is also substantial in Bulgaria and Romania, including illegal shooting at Red-breasted Goose (Simeonov in litt. 2007, E. Todorov in litt. 2015). There are no effective hunting-free areas around roost sites in Bulgaria (hunting is only prohibited for 100m around the lake edge, and this rule is regularly ignored). However, conservation activities in the area of Shabla and Durankulak lakes have reduced deliberate shooting of the species in 2010-2015 (N. Petkov in litt. 2012, 2016). Disturbance in the lakes used for roosts is also caused by poachers and fishermen (Dereliev 1997, D. Hulea in litt. 2006, Dereliev and Georgiev, 2002). Disturbance/chasing of feeding birds by hunters (because they associate with White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons, a legal quarry species) is a significant limitation on foraging behaviour and prenuptial accumulation of fat reserves, which has a negative effect on survival during spring migration and breeding (N. Petkov in litt. 2007, 2016). Hunting by tourists in Ukraine poses an increasing threat (WWT TWSG News 10 1997) and birds are shot at staging grounds in Russia. 

Climate change and associated habitat shifts are expected to impact negatively on this species and others dependent on tundra habitat for breeding. Modelling indicates that 67% of the habitat for this species could be lost by 2070 (Zöckler and Lysenko 2000). The increase in oil and gas operations in the region has seen a significant expansion into previously remote areas and has resulted in disturbance of breeding birds as well as direct habitat loss to a small degree. Further expansion of operations in the region is anticipated (Cranswick et al. 2010). Other threats include industrial developments at breeding sites in Gydan and Yamal, the use of fungicides (Mateo et al. 2016) and rodenticides in the wintering grounds, as well as displacement by windfarms in the wintering areas. A major recent threat is the expansion in windfarms in the wintering areas since 2008. Many thousands of wind turbines have been proposed in Dobrudhza area both in Bulgaria and Romania, including large complexes adjacent to IBAs and SPAs. Data analysis from wintering grounds in Bulgaria suggest that there is already impact of the constructed windfarms leading to displacement and shifting of the foraging areas (Petkov et al. 2012).

Conservation actions

Conservation and Research Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix I and II. It is legally protected in key states (Hunter et al. 1999). It is listed in several national Red Lists including the Red Book of Russia and Red Books of Kazakhstan and Bulgaria. Parts of its breeding range and principal wintering roost sites are protected (some qualifying as Ramsar sites), including the implementation of hunting regulations and hunting-free areas in Russia and Kazakhstan, although hunting occurs in many feeding areas. A management plan is being implemented for roosting lakes in Bulgaria (S. Dereliev in litt. 1999). Wintering sites in Bulgaria and Romania are monitored and research and public awareness projects are ongoing (S. Dereliev in litt. 1999, D. Hulea in litt. 1999, Hunter et al. 1999). An International action plan was published in 2010 (Cranswick et al. 2010). An International Species Working Group (in 2010 it became an AEWA Single Species Working Group [N. Petkov in litt. 2016]) is active and a coordinator is in place. From 2010 to 2015 an EU Life project ran in Bulgaria, which aimed to address many of the key threats operating on the wintering grounds (see Illiev and Petkov 2015). As part of this project a new mixed patrol scheme has been introduced around Shabla and Durankulak lakes SPAs by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds/BirdLife Bulgaria (BSPB) that includes representatives of hunting control and conservation regional authorities and BSPB experts; and they control the legislation and restrictions enforcement in the SPAs territories (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). A study of geese distribution, movements and feeding preferences has enabled a sensitivity map to be developed so that goose-sensitive guidance may be provided to authorities to help guide development proposals (see Harrison and Hilton 2015). In the Bulgarian National Action Plan for Renewable Energy the key Red-breasted Goose wintering areas (as well as other goose species) have been included as sensitive areas for windfarm development and since August 2012 new wind farm development across Dobrudzha, including project area, has been forbidden (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). In addition the area was appointed as highly sensitive area in the National zoning map for wind farm development (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). A Life-funded project was carried out in Romania in 2005-2008 with the aim of improving the habitat quality of an important saltwater lake used by the species and developing a National Action Plan for the species (Raducescu 2013). A payment for the species has been included in the National agri-environmental programme of Romania; and recently a temporary hunting ban was agreed for Lake Balta Alba (Bufnila 2015). In Bulgaria, agri-environmental schemes to encourage seeding winter wheat and maize in key wintering areas for geese have been introduced, covering all key feeding areas for this species in the country (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). Spring-hunting of wildfowl was prohibited in southwest Russia in spring 2012. GPS tracking and Satellite telemetry studies have been conducted to try to better understand the species's migration and site use (see Vangeluwe et al. 2012, Simeonov and Possardt 2012, Simeonov et al. 2014).

Conservation and Research Actions Proposed
Continue to study migration patterns and determine species's non-breeding range using satellite telemetry. Expand monitoring and research programmes, especially in Ukraine, Romania and southern Russia to determine whether more birds are overwintering there; and standardise monitoring techniques across its range (N. Petkov in litt. 2016). Implement a Strategy for Hunting and Waterbird Resource Management (Rozenfeld 2011b). Regulate hunting in key sites (particularly spring hunting in Russia and Kazakhstan; and Bulgarian SPAs). Monitor and reduce disturbance and illegal hunting. Monitor breeding population in Russia to determine population trends. Identify and protect key staging areas. Prevent loss of roosting lakes to urbanization. Monitor changes in agriculture and propose measures (in EU agri-environmental measures ) to ensure suitable foraging habitat is available. Promote beneficial agricultural policies and spatial crop rotation planning around roosting areas. Continue public awareness initiatives. Lobby for full designation of qualifying wetlands and feeding areas as Natura 2000 sites, ensure hunting is not allowed within them and ensure they are properly managed. Continue to try to limit the spread of certain infrastructure (e.g. wind turbines) and recreational activities known to affect this species (N. Petkov in litt. 2016).


53-56 cm. Unmistakable red, black and white goose. Chestnut-red foreneck, breast and sides of head, bordered white. White flank-stripe and black belly. White rear belly and black tail. Juvenile generally duller than adult. Short neck and dark belly stand out in flight. Similar spp. Can be surprisingly difficult to detect amongst large flocks of other geese. Voice Repeated, jerky kik-yoik, kik-yik in flight.


Text account compilers
Butchart, S., Pilgrim, J., Capper, D., Peet, N., Benstead, P., Ashpole, J, Westrip, J., Wheatley, H., Bird, J., Derhé, M., Harding, M., Pople, R.

Mikityuk, A., Mooij, J., Bukreev, S., Zöckler, C., Hulea, D., Cranswick, P., Petkov, N., Zalai, T., Dereliev, S., Nagy, S., Simeonov, P., Kim, H., Rozenfeld, S., Todorov, E., Choudhury, U.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Branta ruficollis. Downloaded from on 28/09/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 28/09/2023.