Trumpeter Swan Information

(Cygnus buccinator)


You will shortly hear the sound of Trumpeter Swans recorded at McLintock Bay, Yukon Territories, CANADA during the Celebration of Swans in April


Family: Anatidae (swans, geese, ducks)

Body: There are three types of all white swans that can be found in Alaska.The Trumpeter, the Tundra, and the Whooper swan are similar in looks but can be differentiated if seen close up. The trumpeter swan is the world's largest member of the waterfowl family. They can measure 65 inches (that is 5'5"!) from beak to tail and have a wingspan of up to 8 feet. A male (cob) averages 22 pounds in weight. Both cobs and pens (females) have identical, all white plumage. If they frequent iron rich waters, it is not uncommon to see swans with rust tainted necks. They have an angular head with a black bill that seems to blend with their black eyes. They have a red border on their lower jaw which can be seen at close range. They have large black, webbed feet which are often visible as they are swimming.

The other two types of white swans have a few characteristics that help to differentiate them from the trumpeter. The tundra swan is about 2/3 the size of the massive trumpeter, and at close range, a small yellow mark can often be seen on their bill, near the eye. The shape of a tundra swans head is also different in that on profile it will appear to have a forehead. The whooper swan is less common in Alaska. These birds are similar in size to the trumpeter, but have a large yellow saddle covering over half of their bill. Another way to tell each bird apart is to listen to the calls. Trumpeters have a french horn like call, tundra swans have a honking call, and whooper swans have a whooping call.

Diet: Trumpeter swans eat primarily foilage, tubers, and seeds of various marsh plants including pond lilly, sedge, widgeongrass, and others. They can eat up to 20 pounds of aquatic vegetation a day. The chicks (cygnets) initially eat aquatic insects and crustaceans, as they need signifigant amounts of protein, but after 5 weeks, they change to a more vegetarian diet. On wintering grounds in the continental US, some swans have adapted to feeding in agricultural fields and this has resulted in conflicts with farmers.

Range: Trumpeter swans have had their historic ranges decrease due to multiple factors. In the past, they ranged in a wide swath from Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana, north throughout Canada, and west to the Bearing Sea. The central Alaskan population spends winters along the coast of British Columbia and down to the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington state. Scattered groups of trumpeters are located in Nevada, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Alberta, and Minnesota. Recovery efforts in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are working to bring the birds numbers to a more historic level. They prefer habitat including wetland areas near rivers, lakes, marshes, ponds, as well as open, temperate woodlands and prairie areas.

Challenges: The trumpeter swan was thought to be very near extinction in the past. They were over-hunted for their feathers, meat, eggs, and even skin. Many birds were also poisoned by spent lead shot or from fishing sinkers that they consumed accidentally while feeding. They are vulnerable to predation from snapping turtles, great horned owls, minks, and raccoons, which may raid nests in search of food and eat the eggs or the young cygnets.

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed to provide protection from illegal hunting. However, 15 years later, only seventy trumpeter swans were known to exist in the world. These birds were all located near Yellowstone National Park, In 1935, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was formed in this area of Montana. The thermal springs located within the refuge provided excellent year round habitat for the swans, and over the years, birds fromthe refuge were been used to reintroduce the species to other parts of the country. The plight of the trumpeter swan was not as dire as it seemed however, for in 1950, a fairly large population of trumpeters was discovered in Alaska. In 1968, trumpeter swans were removed from the national endangered species list, but still remain endangered in some areas of the country. Today, the estimated number of trumpeters exceeds 16,000, with over 80% of these located in Alaska.

Life History: Trumpeter swans choose a mate for life as 2 year olds, but do not actually breed for a couple more years. If they lose their mate, they will look for another. Nests are built between late March and early May, depending on when the waterways become clear of ice. Nests are located near water and may be on shore or on small islands, and can often be found on top of beaver or muskrat lodges. The nests may be used by the same couple for many years. The cob gathers sedges and other swamp plants and brings them to the pen, who then constructs the nest. Their nests are commonly 18 inches tall and from 6 to 12 feet wide. In about two weeks, she has put the final touches on the nest and she is ready to lay her eggs. She will lay an egg every other day until whe has a full clutch of 3 to 9 eggs with each egg measuring up to 5 inches in length. The pen then incubates the eggs while the cob patrols the area around the nest. After a gestation period of 31 to 35 days, the pen will give birth to the young cygnets. The downey cygnets are ash grey in color, have pink bills, and weigh only 1/2 pound each. They are able to swim right away, but will stay in the nest at least 24 hours before they venture out. Both parents are responsible for raising their young. By the age of 8 to 10 weeks, the cygnets have reached half their adult size, but will retain their grey feathers until their second winter. Trumpeter swans migrate as family units, or in small groups of several families, between their winter and summer ranges.



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