Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus

(c) Glen Tepke
  • ANATIDAE
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Cisne chiflador
  • Cygne siffleur
Introduction
Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are the only two swan species native to North America; the Tundra Swan is the smaller and more numerous of the two. Many cultures, like the ancient Greek and the Navajo, have revered swans for their elegance and grace. The Tundra Swan is admired for its pure white plumage, long neck, courtship displays performed by life-long pairs, and ringing calls that inspired explorer Meriwether Lewis to call them whistling swans.
Appearance Description
On average, Tundra Swans grow to 52 inches long and 14.4 pounds, with a 66-inch wingspan. This large, elegant waterfowl sports all-white plumage that contrasts with its black feet and bill. Bare, black skin, which sometimes shows a bright yellow spot, connects the bill to the dark eye. Smaller than Mute and Trumpeter Swans, Tundra Swans have a moderately long neck, heavy body, and stout legs. Sexes are similar, though males are a bit larger.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Tundra Swans breed in low densities close to coastal areas from the Aleutian Islands north and east to Baffin Island, Canada. This swan also breeds around Canada's Hudson Bay. Tundra Swans sort themselves into eastern and western wintering populations. Western swans winter along the Pacific coast and at scattered interior locations that do not freeze, while eastern swans winter from New Jersey to South Carolina.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Throughout the Arctic coastal plain, Tundra Swans breed on marshes and wet grasslands on or near freshwater pools, slow streams, and lakes. Pond weed, Hoppner's and water sedges, and tall cotton and pendent grasses characterize these sites. Avoiding ice, post-breeding swans move to Arctic salt marshes, then south into the wetlands of the boreal forest, the shallows of lakes and rivers, and finally, coastal salt marshes. Increasingly, Tundra Swans choose wetlands near farm fields, where they can forage on grain.
Feeding
Like other swans, Tundra Swans have a mostly vegetarian diet that changes with the seasons. Using its long neck, this swan reaches for submerged plants, pulls stems and tubers, and gleans seeds from land and water. During the warmer months, these swans consume sago and Arctic pond weed, grasses, algae, sedges, and crustaceans loosened from the mud with its feet. Agriculturally grown cereal grains are an important component of this bird's diet during migration and winter.
Reproduction
At two or three years of age, Tundra Swans form life-long, monogamous pairs, often after short-term alliances with other partners. Pairs arrive on the breeding grounds together and usually reoccupy an old nest on a traditional site. Courtship displays include mutual greetings with quivering wings and strident calls. On or near water, the pair builds the nest together, but the female forms the bowl. The nest consists of a mound of vegetation, which enlarges with subsequent use, the growth of transplanted sod, and frost heaves.
 
The female lays four to five whitish eggs and does most of the incubation, which lasts about 31 days. The gray to yellowish hatchlings can soon walk, hide, and feed. From the time the eggs are laid until the family breaks up during spring migration, parents vigorously defend their offspring from predators like foxes, and competitors like other swans and geese. Parents may hiss, extend their wings, and even charge predators. After leading hatchlings to feeding sites, parents may stir food to the surface for the young. Family groups migrate and winter together, and extended family groups may form alliances outside the breeding season.
Migration
Flying as high as 8,000 feet, family groups of Tundra Swans migrate in small to large V-shaped flocks. Each population follows traditional routes, modified by weather and the need for food. Flocks depart wintering grounds in February or March to begin arriving in early May. In September, Tundra Swans fly south from Arctic coastal staging areas and arrive between November and December. Many Tundra Swans are either staging or migrating for more than half the year.
  • 296,800
  • 181,300
Population Status Trends
Recent Christmas Bird Count data indicate a slight decline in wintering Tundra Swans. In places like Maryland, local wintering populations have experienced severe declines attributed to habitat degradation and competition with non-native Mute Swans. However, surveys at key breeding sites have recorded modest increases since the 1980s.
 
Conservation Issues
Low populations make Tundra Swans particularly sensitive to the loss of breeding and migrating habitat. Petroleum development threatens Arctic breeding sites like the Mackenzie River Delta, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Nesting and staging are disrupted by contamination, poisoning from lead shot ingestion, human activity, and predators attracted by human garbage. Interior wetlands between the Arctic tundra and both coasts provide vital rest areas and food sources. Siltation, invasive species, and conversion to farmland make these wetlands uninhabitable for Tundra Swans. In 1995, as many as 6,000 Tundra Swans used Rieck's Lake in Alma, Wisconsin daily. By 2004, the daily count had plunged to 300 Tundra Swans. Urged by local activists, the Federal Scenic Byways program funded dredging efforts and habitat rehabilitation at Rieck's Lake.
 

On their wintering grounds, Tundra Swans are impacted by the destruction of aquatic plants, competition from non-native Mute Swans, and hunting. Tundra Swans have adapted by foraging in agricultural fields, where they attract the attention, and sometimes the ire, of landowners. The Atlantic Flyway Council and local agencies have developed plans for managing the competing Mute Swans, which take over vital shelter and foraging sites on shallow waters. Surprisingly, the United States still permits and monitors the hunting of Tundra Swans in eight states. Large-scale efforts like the Atlantic Flyway Eastern Tundra Swan Project collect data for establishing hunting limits.

What You Can Do
Join a local field trip to look for Tundra Swans as they migrate through or winter in your area. Consider Wisconsin's Alma Tundra Swan Watch, which brings people, swans, and vital habitat together during fall migration.
 
Consider providing for the protection and research of Tundra Swans by purchasing a Federal Duck Stamp.
 
Advocate for lead-free ammunition and sinkers to protect wildlife and children. Tundra Swans can ingest expended lead shot and fishing sinkers, which have caused large die-offs.
 
Join the efforts of the National Audubon Society in supporting the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other refuges threatened by oil and gas development. .
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
"Atlantic Flyway Mute Swan Management Plan 2003-2013." Snow Goose, Brant, and Swan Committee, Atlantic Flyway Council (July 2003).
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Limpert, R. J. and S. L. Earnst. 1994. Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 89 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Monda, M.J.; Ratti, J.T.; McCabe, T.R. "Reproductive ecology of tundra swans on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska." Journal of Wildlife Management 58:4 (1994) 757-773.
 
Petrie, S. E. and K. L. Wilcox. "Migration chronology of Eastern-Population Tundra Swans." 
Canadian Journal of Zoology 81 (2003) 861-870.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.
Conservation Status References
"Atlantic Flyway Mute Swan Management Plan 2003-2013." Snow Goose, Brant, and Swan Committee, Atlantic Flyway Council (July 2003). U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Limpert, R. J. and S. L. Earnst. 1994. Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 89 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
"Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) Invasive Species in the Chesapeake Watershed." Chesapeake Bay Program and Maryland Sea Grant (University System of Maryland). 26 June 2002.
 
Petrie, S. E. and K. L. Wilcox. "Migration chronology of Eastern-Population Tundra Swans." 
Canadian Journal of Zoology 81 (2003) 861-870.
 
Rhodes, Walt. "Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)." Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. 2005.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.