The largest of North America’s native swans, the Trumpeter Swan at one time had a critically small population, although conservation and reintroduction efforts are proving successful. Trumpeter Swans hatching in Upper Midwest reintroduction programs often winter in south-central states.
Trumpeter Swans don’t typically breed until 4-7 years of age, but usually breed every year once they start. Collisions with power lines and fences are frequently reported, but Trumpeter Swans can be long-lived, with the oldest known wild bird living over 24 years.
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Description of the Trumpeter Swan
The Trumpeter Swan is a large swan with all white plumage and a black bill. The black facial skin above its bill forms a V on its forehead.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are grayish.
Lakes, shallow ponds, and rivers.
Aquatic plants, grains, and grasses.
Forages by grazing or by reaching underwater with its head.
Breeds in Alaska and western Canada as well as parts of the northern U.S. Winters somewhat south of its breeding range.
Restoration programs have been very successful at increasing the population and distribution of Trumpeter Swans.
Trumpeter Swans will roost either on land or on the water.
The call is a one or two note honk.
- Tundra Swans are smaller and have black facial skin that cuts straight across the forehead.
The nest is a pile of plant material placed in a location surrounded by water.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 32-37 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Trumpeter Swan
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Trumpeter Swan – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CYGNUS BUCCINATOR Richardson
This magnificent bird, the largest of all the North American wild fowl, belongs to a vanishing race; though once common throughout all of the central and northern portions of the continent, it has been gradually receding before the advance of civilization and agriculture; when the great Central West was wild and uncultivated it was known to breed in the uninhabited parts of many of our Central States, even as far south as northern Missouri; but now it probably does not breed anywhere within the limits of the United States, except possibly in some of the wilder portions of Montana or Wyoming; civilization has pushed it farther and farther north until now it is making its last stand in the uninhabited wilds of northern Canada. E. U. Forbush (1912) has summed up the history of its disappearance very well, as follows:
The trumpeter has succumbed to incessant persecution in all parts of its range, and its total extinction is now only a matter of years. Persecution drove it from the northern parts of its winter range to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico; from all the southern portion of its breeding range toward the shores of the Arctic Ocean; and from the Atlantic and Pacific slopes toward the interior. Now it almost has disappeared from the Gulf States. A swan soon at any time of the year iii most parts of the United States is the signal for every man with a gun to pursue it. The breeding swans of the United States have been extirpated, and the bird is pursued, even in its farthest northern haunts, by the natives, who capture it in summer, when it has melted its primaries and, is unable to fly. The swan lives to a great age. The older birds are about as tough and unfit for food as an old horse. Only the younger are savory, and the gunners might well have spared the adult birds, but it was ‘sport” to kill them and fashion called for swan’s-down. The large size of this bird and its conspicuousness have served, as in the ease of the whooping crane, to make it a shining mark, and the trumpetings that were once heard over the breadth of a great continent, as the long converging lines drove on from zone to zone, will soon be heard no more. In the ages to come, like the call of the whooping crane, they will be locked in the silence of the past.
The late E. S. Cameron prepared for me, in 1913 and 1914, some very elaborate notes on the history of this species in Montana, which Mrs. Cameron very kindly sent to me after her husband’s death. They are interesting and valuable enough to print in full, but mx’ space will permit only a few quotations and references. Regarding recent records he says:
The trumpeter swan, which 20 yeam ago was finite common in Montana, has now become exceedingly scarce, and is probably on the verge of extinction everywhere. My investigations during 1912: 13 nod 1914, show that trumpeters are almost unrepresented among the large numbers of migrant swans which biannually pass over Montana. It seems to be the melancholy fact that thousands of whistling swans are seen to one trumpeter, and at the time of writing I have only two authenticated records of trumpeter swans for the three years above mentioned, the specimens from St. Marys Lake and Cut bank. Mr. J. H. Price informed me that an adult male trumpeter was shot by a boy on the Telloxvstone, near Miles City, Custer County, on October 27, 1905, and I have since seen the mounted bird in a saloon keeper’s window. At the time of writing the finest specimen of a trumpeter swan, within my knowledge, is the one killed by Mr. Robert Sloane, of Kalispell, when duck shooting on the shore of Elathead Lake. We left Kalispell before daylight on the morning of November 15, 1910. on our way to where the Flathead River debouches from the flat alluvial floor of the valley through a fair-sized delta into Flathead Lake. The morning was chilly, with occasional snow flurries, and we knew’ that the ducks would he on the move. Leaving the spring wagon behind the strip of brush which fringes the lake shore at this point, we built blinds, set our decoys, and were soon in the midst of a good flight of canvashacks, redheads, and mallards. The sport was the host in my experience, as the birds, in passing from the lake to the sloughs or bayous inshore, offered fine shots. At this place there is a sandy beach a hundred yards in width, while here. and for seine miles on either side, it is possible to wade into the lake for another 200 yards without becoming ~vet above the knees. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon a violent snow squall arose, and in tIme thick of it my attention was drawn to some white objects which were rising amni falling on the waves aijoot a mile offshore. At times these’ appeared like small sailing boats, but when they drev nearer I distinguished a flock of eight swans loti by a splendid snow-white bird whose every movement was followed by the others. Two moore of time swans xvere white and the remaining five (lark colored. I loft my blind and. running along a cattle trail through the brush to the wagon, took may 30: SO Winchester and returned to the edge of the beach. I then fired at the big leading swami, and struck it fairly in the neck at the first shot, although the bird was some 200 yards distant. Upon the death of their leader the rest of the flock momentarily bunched up in bewilderment, but, recovering their wils, made a ~reat comnuietion in their efforts to rise from the water. Having once cleared the lake with their wings, however, they departed at great speed, while I waded through the shallows to retrieve my coveted trophy. The sxvan was found to weigh a full 31 pounds.
He describes at considerable length the capture of a trumpeter swan by a shepherd employed by G. B. Christian, of Augtlsta, Montana, in November, 1907. The man fired a rifle at a passing flock and brought down a bird, which lie captured tmnhurt except for one broken pinion. The bird was kept for a year alive and then presented to time Great Falls Park; but, as it was not pinioned, lt escaped after the next molt and xvas shot by a boy and all trace of it was lost. Jr wasa pui’e white adult of very large size and was supposed to have weighed about 35 pounds.
In 1913 an Indian offered for sale at Kalispell an immense trumpeter swan from St. Marys Lake, Glacier National Park. It was poorly skinned, not properly poisoned, became infested with beetles, and was burned. Dr. Jonathan Dwight has the head and legs of this swan.
A female trumpeter swan, now in the collection of Dr. Jonathan Dwight, was shot by a saloon keeper, Ben Schannberg, at Cutbank. Teton County, Montana, in the first week of November, 1913. This was also an immature bird, supposed to have been about 18 months old, and was in a much emaciated condition, hut it weighed 20 pounds.
Henry K. Coale (1915) has published an excellent paper on the present status of this swan, in which he mentions three of the above records, but he does not include them in the list of specimens to which he refers, as follows:
Of the great multitudes of trumpeter swans which traversed the central and western portion of north America 60 years ago, there are 16 specimens preserved in museums xvhich have authentic data. These were collected between the years 1856 and 1909. There are besides the type, five other Canadian records, Toronto 1863, Fort Resolution 1860, Lake St. Clair 1878, St. Clair Flats 1884, and Manitoba 1887; and one from Wyoming 1856, Idaho 1873, Michigan 1875, Wisconsin 1880, Ohio 1880, Oregon 1881, North Dakota 1891, Minnesota 1893, Montana 1902, and Mexico 1909.
Nesting: Prof. Wells M/. Cooke (1906) says:
In early times it probably bred south to Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and Idaho; it nested in Iowa as late as 1871, in Idaho in 1877, in Minnesota in 1886, and in North Dakota probably for a few years later. It is not probable that at the present time the trumpeter nests anywhere in the United States, and even in Alberta no nests seem to have been found later than 1891. The vast wilderness of but a generation ago Is now crossed by railroads and thickly dotted with farms. The species is supposed still to breed in the interior of British Columbia at about latitude 53O~
Dr. IL M. Anderson (1907) writes:
The only definite record of the nesting of the trumpeter swan in Iowa which I have been able to trace was received from the veteran collector, J. W. Preston, In a letter dated March 22, 1904: “A pair of ‘trumpeters~ reared a brood of young in a slough near Little Twin Lakes, Hancock County, in the season of 1883, not many miles from where some good finds in the way of sets of whooping cranes were made. This was positively Ole,~ buccinator. The nest was placed on a large tussock in a marshy slough or creek, and had been used for years by the swans, as I was credibly informed; hut the nest mentioned above, so far as I am aware, was the last In that locality.”
Roderick MacFarlane (1891) reported:
Several nests of this species were met with in the Barren Grounds, on Islands in Franklin Bay, and one containing 6 eggs was situated near the beach on a sloping knoll. It was composed of a quantity of hay, down, and feathers Intermixed, and this was the general mode of structure of the nests of both swans. It usually lays from 4 to B eggs, judging from the noted contents of a received total of 24 nests.
Mr. Cameron says that trumpeter swans formerly bred in western Montana, but his diligent investigations have failed to discover any recent nesting sites. ” Some birds made great nests of tules, but many more built them on muskrat houses which they flattened out for the purpose.” He describes a nest, found in 1871 on the Thompson River, on “a large deserted beaver lodge. On this mound, which measured at least 5 feet across, was a great pile of grass and feathers.” The two eggs, which it contained, were concealed under a bunch of down. Of the latest two obtainable records he says:
A Kootenal Indian woman, while hunting with her husband and father-inlaw, in the year 1889, saw a pair of swans with two cygnets on a small lake toward the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead River. Shortly after this she took two eggs from a swan’s nest by the same lake, but can not give the ejact year, although it was probably 1890.
The latest information I have comes in a letter from M. P. Skinner, of Yellowstone Park, and is very encouraging; he writes:
Early In the summer of 1919, I noted a swan in the vicinity of Heart Lake. A little later the nest was found on a low island in a lagoon northeast of Lewis Lake, containing five whitish eggs, the nest being made of leaves and grass. On August 14 I returned and then found the tail and flight feathers molted by the adults, but the birds were too far away and too wary to determine the species. On September 6, I again visited this section and found five trumpeter swan (the two parents and three young so nearly grown as to be able to fly well). While I did not feel justified in sacrificing one of these rare birds, there can be no mistake as to identification. I have been familiar since November of 1912 with both of our swans, the whistling swan occuring in comparatively large numbers from October 31 (earliest date ever noted by me) to May 3, the latest date. I saw the trumpeter swans several times, and once within an estimated distance of 50 yards under a pair of 12 X binoculars. Bill and lores of all the birds lacked the yellow spot; they were markedly superior in size to the whistling swans; and their cries were unmistakable. The breeding range of the smaller swan is given as “far northward and probably In British Columbia,” whereas the trumpeter has been known to breed as far south as Iowa.
Mr. H. M. Smith, United States Fish Commissioner, reports that on July 16, 1919, be visited a small, unnamed lake lying south of Delusion Lake and found there a pair of swans with six cygnets about the size of teal swimming actively about Mr. Smith could not identify these as bucciaator, but In view of my own discovery I believe they were of this variety.
Eggs: The trumpeter swan has been said to lay from 2 to 10 eggs in a set; the latter number must be very unusual and was probably the product of two birds; probably the usual set consists of from 4 to 6 eggs. Mr. Cameron says that the number of eggs varies from 2 to 8 according to the age of the birds and other circumstances, the smaller sets being laid by the younger birds; at least this is the general opinion among the Indians. The eggs are like those of the whistling swan, but larger. In shape they vary from elliptical ovate or elliptical oval to nearly elliptical. The shell is rough or granulated and more or less pitted. The color is creamy white or dull white, becoming much nest stained. The measurements of 25 eggs, in various collections, average 110 by 71.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 119.5 by 76, 115 by 76.5, and 101 by 62.8 millimeters.
Young: P. M. Silloway (1903) records the following incident which a friend of his witnessed in Montana:
A friend told me of seeing an old swan and a young one upon the “Highland” lakes. The two were In flight between the lakes, and the cygnet flow only a few feet directly above the elder, so that it could drop on the parent’s back at frequent intervals. rfhe younger swan would fly 30 or 60 yards alone, then drop lightly upon the parent’s back to rest, being carried for 50 to 60 yards in this umaner; then it would rise upon its own pinions and flap along above the elder bird until it again became weary of its own exertions.
Mr. Cameron sent me the following statement from Ed. Forbes a rancher of IKalispell:
I punched cows iii the CenteMnial Valley in Beaverhend County from 1883 to 1888. During that limo I saw quantities of swans, and killed many young birds which we thought good to eat. We used to paddle after them among the tuies (bulirushes) and rope them, as they never seemed to learn to fly until ice formed around the shores, and were fearless, big, and awkward. Even then it took them a long, flapping flight to clear the water. The young birds would dive, and come up at a distance of 600 feet when chased with a boat.
Plumages: J have never seen a downy young trumpeter swan and can find no description of it in print. We know very little of its molts and plumages. Audubon (1840) describes the first winter plumage as follows:
In winter the young has the bill black, with the middle portion of the ridge, to the length of an inch and a half, light flesh-color, and a large elongated patch of light dull purple on each side; the edge of the lower mandible and the tongue dull yellowish flesh-color. The eye is dark brmvn. The feet dull yelloxvish brown, tinged with olive; the claws broxvnish black; the webs blackish brown. The upper part of the head and the cheeks are light reddish brown, each feather having loward its extremity a small oblong whitish spot, narrowly margined with dusky; the throat nearly white, as well as the edge of the loxver eyelid. The general color of the other parts is grayish white, slightly tinged ~vith yelloxv; the upper part of the neck marked with spots similar to those on the head.
How long it takes for the young bird to reach maturity we do not know, but he speaks of two young birds, seen in captivity, that were about 2 years old and were pure white.
Food: Audtibon (1840) says of the feeding habits of the trumpeter swan:
This swan feeds principally by partially immersing the body and extending the neck under water, in the manner of fresh-water ducks and some species of geese, ~vhca the feet often seell working in the air, as if to aid in preserving the balance. Often, hoxvever, it resorts to the land, and then picks at the herbage, not sidewise, as geese do, but more in the manner of ducks and poultry. Its food consists of roots of different vegetables, leaves, seeds, various aquatic insects, land snails, small reptiles, and quadrupeds. The flesh of a cygnet is pretty good eating, but that of an old bird is dry nod tough.
Behavior: Referring to the behavior of this species, with which he seems to have been quite familiar, he writes:
The flight of the trumpeter swan is firm, at times greatly elevated and sustained. It passes through the air by regular heats, in the same manner as geese, the neck stretched to its full length, as are the feet, which project beyond the tail. When passing low, I have frequently thought that I heard a rustling sound from the motion of the feathers of their wings. If hound to a distant place, they form themselves in angular lines, and probably the leader of the flock is one of the oldest of the males; but of this I am not at all sure, as I have seen at the head of a line a gray bird, which must have been a young one of that year.
To form a perfect conception of the beauty and elegance of these swans, you must observe them when they are not aware of your proximity, and ns they glide over the waters of some secluded inland pond. On such occasions, the neck, which at other times is held stiffly upright, moves in graceful curves, now bent forward, now inclined backsvard over the body. Now with an extended scooping movement the head becomes immersed for a moment, and with a sudden effort a flood of water is thrown over the back and wings, when it is seen rolling off in sparkling glohules, like so many large pearls. The bird then shakes its wings, beats the water, and as if giddy with delight shoots away, gliding over and beneath the surface of the liquid element with surprising agility and grace. Imagine, reader, that a flock of 50 swans are thus sporting be fore you, as they have more than once been in my sight, and you will feel, as I have felt, more happy and void of care than I can describe.
When swimming unmolested the swan shows the body buoyed up; but when apprehensive of danger, it sinks considerably lower. If resting and basking in the sunshine, it dra’vs one foot expanded curiously toward the back, and in that posture remains often for half an hour at a time. When making off swiftly, the tarsal joint, or knee as it is called, is seen about an inch above the water, which now in wavelets passes over the loxver part of the neck and along the sides of the body, as it undulates on the planks of a vessel gliding xvith a gentle breeze. Unless during the courting season, or ~vhile passing by its mate, I never saw a swan with the ~vings raised and expanded, as it is alleged they do, to profit by the breeze that may blow to assist their progress; and yet I have pursued some in canoes to a considerable distance, and that ~vithout overtaking them, or even obliging them to take to wing. You, reader, as well as all the world, have seen swans laboring away on foot, and therefore I ~vill not trouble you with a description of their mode of walking, especially as it is not much to be admired.
The notes of the trumpeter swan are described as loud, resonant trumpetings; differing in tone and volume from those of the whistling sw’an; the windpipe of the larger species has one more convolution, which enables it to produce a louder and more far-reaching note on a lower key, with the musical resonance of a French horn.
Winter: For an account of its winter habits, we must again quote Audubon (1840) as follows:
The trumpeter swans make their appearance on the lower portions of the waters of the Ohio about the end of October. They throw themselves at once into the larger ponds or lakes at no great distance froni the river, giving a marked preference to those which are closely surrounded by dense and tall canebrakes, and there remain until the water is closed by ice, when they are forced to proceed southward. During mild winters I have seen swans of this species in the ponds about Henderson until the beginning of March, but only a few individuals, which may have stayed there to recover from their wounds. When the cold became intense, most of those which visited the Ohio would remove to the Mississippi, and proceed down that stream as the severity of the weather increased, or return If it diminished; for it has appeared to me, that neither very intense cold nor great heat suit them so well as a medium temperature. I have traced the winter migrations of this species as far southward as Texas, where it is abundant at times.
Whilst encamped in the Tawapatee Bottom, when on a fur-trading voyage, our keel boat was hauled close under the eastern shore of the Mississippi, and our valuables, for I then had a partner in trade, were all disembarked. The great stream was itself so firmly frozen that we were daily in the habit of crossing it from shore to shore. No sooner did the gloom of night become discernible through the gray twilight than the loud-sounding notes of hundreds of trumpeters would burst on the ear; and as I gazed over the ice-bound river, flocks after flocks would he seen coming from afar and in various directions, and alighting about the middle of the stream opposite to our eacampment. After pluming themselves awhile they would quietly drop their bodies on tile ice, and through the dim light I yet could observe the graceful curve of their necks, as they gently turned them backward, to allow their heads to repose upon the softest and warmest of pillows. Just a dot of black as it were could be observed on the snowy mass, and that dot was about half an inch of the base of the upper mandible, thus exposed, as I think, to enable the bird to breathe with ease. Not a single individual could I ever observe among them to act as a sentinel, and I have since doubted whether their acute sense of hearing was not sufficient to enable them to detect the approach of their enemies. The day quite closed by darkness, no more could be seen until the next dawn; but as often as the howlings of the numerous wolves that prowled through the surrounding woods were heard, the clanging cries of the swans would fill the air. If the morning proved fair, the flocks would rise on their feet, trim their plumage, and as they started with wings extended, as if racing in rivalry, the pattQring of their feet would come on the ear like tile noise of great muffled drums, accompanied by the loud and clear sounds of their voice. On running 50 yards. or so to windward, they would all be on wing. If the weather was thick, drizzly, and cold, or if there were indications of a fall of snow, they would remain on the ice, walking, standing, or lying down, until symptoms of better weather became apparent, when they would all start off.
Mr. Hoyes Lloyd has recently written to me about a flock of wild trumpeter swans that have for several years been spending the winter in a lake in southern British Columbia under the protection of the Canadian National Parks Branch. So there is hope that the species may survive.
Breeding range: Prohably still breeds sparingly in the wilder portions of Wyoming (Yellowstone Park), western Montana, Alberta, British Columbia (Skeena River), and northwestern Canada. Has bred in the past east to James Bay (Norway House), Manitoba (Shoal Lake, 1893 and 1894), Minnesota (Heron Lake, 1883), and Indiana. South to Iowa (Hancock County, 1883), Nebraska, and Missouri west to British Columbia (Chilcoten) and Alaska (Fort Yukon).
Winter range: AVestern United States. South to the Gulf of Mexico and southern California. North to west-central British Columbia (Skeena River) and the central Mississippi Valley. Now too rare everywhere to outline its range more definitely.
Spring migration: Average dates of arrival: Nebraska, March 16; South Dakota, April 2; Minnesota, Heron Lake, April 4; Saskatchewan, April 16; British Columbia, April 20. Late date of departure: Arkansas, Helena, April 29, 1891; British Columbia, Osoyoos, April 25.
Fall migration: Fall dates: Minnesota, Spicer, October 8, 1913; Michigan, St. Clair Flats, November 20, 1875; Washington, Douglas County, November 9, 1912; Colorado, Fort Collins, November 18, 1897, and November 25, 1915.
Egg dates: Arctic Canada: Five records, June 1 7. to July 9. Alaska: One record, June 28. Alberta: One record, A pri I 7. i)akota: One record, June 4.