Herbivores of different body size vary in food selection because of their different metabolic requirements and abilities to harvest and digest food. Compared with smaller grazers, larger ones require higher food quantity but can tolerate poorer quality. This divergence may also explain habitat partitioning in the distribution of closely related species. By estimating daily energy expenditure (based on observed activity budgets) and energy intake (using the indigestible marker method in food and faeces), we compared the field energy budgets of three wintering herbivorous goose species differing in body size feeding on the same Carex meadows. Throughout the winter, the larger Bean Geese Anser fabalis serrirostris and Greater White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons maintained positive energy budgets grazing lower quality Carex, in contrast to the smaller Lesser White-fronted Geese Anser erythropus which failed to do so and could only maintain positive energy budgets by grazing high-quality Alopecurus, Cynodon and Eleocharis. However, all three species failed to maintain positive energy balance and lost mass in midwinter. These results have important implications for explaining the divergent distribution patterns of these species on their wintering grounds in China.