Trumpeter Swan

Cygnus buccinator

(c) John Van de Graaff
  • ANATIDAE
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Cisne trompetero
  • Cygne trompette
Introduction
The Trumpeter Swan is North America's largest species of waterfowl. It is also the only swan found exclusively within this continent. Named for its distinct, trumpet-like call, it is widely admired today for its beauty and grace. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case, as it was driven nearly to extinction less than a century ago. The Trumpeter Swan has benefited tremendously from modern conservation efforts, but remains one of North America's least common native waterfowl species.
(c) Fred Atwood
Appearance Description

Weighing up to 30 pounds, with a 7 to 8 foot wingspan, the Trumpeter Swan is the largest of North America's native waterfowl. Trumpeters stand four feet tall, measuring up to five feet from bill to tail. All-white with a large black bill and dark legs, the striking adults are similar to the Tundra Swan, but generally slightly larger and bulkier, with a longer neck and more massive bill, which in the Trumpeter, is flatter, more evenly sloped, and extends back to more completely surround the eye. Individual birds are best identified by examining the details of the bill. Young birds are gray to brownish, with mottled pink and gray bills. They attain the all-white adult plumage after the first year.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Today's Trumpeter Swan population is largely based in Alaska and the western Canadian provinces, but the birds also breed locally in many areas across the Rockies and western plains. Modern range expansion is thought to be further east than the limits of their actual historic range.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Trumpeters breed on shallow bodies of water with plenty of vegetation, including freshwater marshes, ponds, lakes, and slow moving rivers. In winter, they choose similar areas such as streams, springs, lakes, or reservoirs where vegetation and ice-free water are available. Once common breeders in prairie regions, most of the birds' present range is within forested areas.
Feeding
Trumpeters are mainly herbivorous, foraging by tipping up in shallow water to reach submerged aquatic vegetation, fish, or small aquatic invertebrates. They also graze on land, particularly in winter, picking up grasses, seeds and grains, and occasionally digging for roots and tubers.
Reproduction
Certain characteristics of the Trumpeters' breeding biology contribute to the difficulties encountered in efforts to re-establish this species. The species is long-lived, reaching over 30 years of age. Compared to birds with shorter life spans, Trumpeters are slow to breed, so reintroduction efforts must be monitored over decades rather than seasons. While birds may pair off in their second year of life, they may not actually breed until their seventh year.
 

Trumpeters remain paired for life. Both parents build a very large nest, often on a raised mound, island, or even a beaver lodge. Nests can take over a month to construct. Once completed, the female lays her eggs and does much of the incubating, though the male assist. Young cygnets begin to vocalize up to 24 hours before hatching. When they emerge, wet and weakened, they are brooded by the female for another 24 to 48 hours before being led to the feeding grounds. The bulk of the young birds' diet is small aquatic animals. While cygnets can feed themselves, the parents often assist by treading in shallow water to stir up various invertebrates. Young Trumpeters cannot fly until they are 100 to 120 days old, and family groups usually remain together throughout the first winter.

Migration
Each Trumpeter population has separate migratory habits. Northern flocks generally migrate long distances toward various points along the Pacific Northwest coast. Other populations can be notoriously sedentary, often remaining on breeding grounds well beyond the onset of harsh winter conditions, a habit that can occasionally prove fatal. They will move south only as far as necessary to find sufficient open water. In spring, the course is reversed, with birds often arriving on the breeding grounds before the ice has broken up. Many reintroduced populations have yet to establish strong migratory trends. The need for additional wintering grounds away from the Yellowstone region is a current concern for the interior Trumpeter population.
  • 34,803
  • 34,803
  • Very small population size and small range
Population Status Trends
Historically, Trumpeter Swans occurred across much of western North America. As civilization pushed westward over recent centuries, Trumpeter populations were quickly decimated. By the early 1930s, only 69 birds remained south of the US-Canada border, although small populations were later discovered in Alaska. Nearly extinct by 1940, the species has been recovering slowly yet steadily over the past half century. Thanks to numerous conservation efforts, these majestic birds are beginning to reoccupy areas where they haven't been found for decades, and their range is expanding in certain areas. Marked birds from various re-introduction programs started in the 1980s and 1990s are now being reported in areas where the species formerly occurred. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data from 2005 indicate that all three Trumpeter populations (Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain, and Interior) are at a modern high, with over 34,000 birds surveyed continent-wide between May 2005 and January 2006.
 
Conservation Issues
The species' rapid decline over the past two and a half centuries was largely due to unchecked hunting for skins, feathers, and meat. Favored habitat was also lost as much of the birds' range was converted to agricultural use. The species has been federally protected under the Migratory Bird Act since 1918, but has also benefited from the additional protections afforded it over more recent decades. Successful reintroduction programs have been undertaken in places such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, Ohio and New York. Trumpeters are currently doing well in these areas.
 

However, several threats loom. This reclusive bird is sensitive to human activity, which can prove fatal to chicks on the breeding grounds, or even to weakened adults in winter. The species is also highly susceptible to lead poisoning. In Washington State and British Columbia, hundreds of Trumpeters die from the effects of ingested lead shot each winter. Lead shotgun pellets, illegal for waterfowl hunting, remain legal for other quarry. A disproportionate number of Trumpeters seem to pick up lead shot on hunting grounds, either accidentally while feeding, or intentionally while seeking grit. Even a few lead pellets may prove deadly, but in recent necropsies, researchers have documented as many as 30 and, in extreme cases, up to 100 lead pellets in succumbed swans.

What You Can Do
Bird watchers, photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts should avoid disturbing this highly sensitive species.
 
Hunters should avoid lead shot for the well being of Trumpeter Swans and all wildlife.
 
Report sightings of collared, banded, or otherwise marked Trumpeter Swans to your local game commission or wildlife management agency.
 
Participate in the Trumpeter Swan Society's Adopt a Swan Program, which seeks to raise the funds necessary to further study the specific causes and solutions to the lead poisoning that is killing so many birds in the Pacific Northwest. Funds go towards the study, research, and monitoring of Trumpeter Swans in Washington and British Columbia.
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
The Trumpeter Swan Society is an organization dedicated to the welfare of wild Trumpeter Swans.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Mitchell, C. D. 1994. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). In The Birds of North America, No. 105 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Kortright, Francis H. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C., 1943
 
Moser, T.J. The 2005 North American Trumpeter Swan Survey. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. April 2006.
 
 
Whan, B., Rising, G., Shea, R. "Should Trumpeter Swans Be Introduced to the Eastern United States and Canada?" Birding 34(4): 341-343,345. August 2002.
Conservation Status References
Mitchell, C. D. 1994. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). In The Birds of North America, No. 105 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Kortright, Francis H. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C., 1943
 
Moser, T.J. The 2005 North American Trumpeter Swan Survey. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. April 2006.
 
 
Whan, B., Rising, G., Shea, R. "Should Trumpeter Swans Be Introduced to the Eastern United States and Canada?" Birding 34(4): 341-343,345. August 2002.