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Tundra Swan

A large water bird found in the northern parts of North America, known for its pure white plumage, long neck, and its distinctive honking calls that are often heard during migration.

With its high arctic breeding range, the Tundra Swan undertakes long migrations in family groups which may travel by both day and night. Tundra Swan pairs maintain territories during the breeding season, and keep the same territories from one year to the next. Displays as well as chases are used to defend territories.

Young Tundra Swans remain with their parents during their first southward migration and first winter, but leave them at some point during spring migration. The oldest known wild Tundra Swan was over 21 years old.

Tundra Swan

Description of the Tundra Swan


Tundra Swan

The Tundra Swan is a large swan with all white plumage and a black bill. The black facial skin above its bill cuts straight across the forehead.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are grayish.


Tundra, lakes, flooded fields, and rivers.


Seeds and plants


Forages by grazing or by reaching underwater with its head.


Breeds in Alaska and northern Canada and winters locally across large parts of the U.S., but primarily on the east and west coasts.

Fun Facts

Tundra Swans can fly at about 50 miles per hour.

Tundra Swan pairs remain together year-round.


The call is a high-pitched whoop.

Similar Species

Trumpeter Swans are larger and have black facial skin that forms a V on the forehead.


The nest is a pile of plant material placed near water.

Number: 4-5.
Color: Whitish.

Incubation and fledging: 
– Young hatch at 31-32 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the Tundra 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 Tundra Swan – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



I had lived to be nearly 50 years old before I saw my first wild swan, but it was a sight worth waiting for, to see a flock of these magnificent, great, snow-white birds, glistening in the sunlight against the clear blue sky, their long necks pointing northward toward their polar home, their big black feet trailing behind, and their broad translucent wings slowly beating the thin upper air, as they sped onward in their long spring flight. If the insatiable desire to kill, and especially to kill something big and something beautiful, had not so possessed past and present generations of sportsmen, I might have seen one earlier in my life and perhaps many another ornithologist, who has never seen a swan, might have enjoyed the thrill of such an inspiring sight. No opportunity has been neglected to kill these magnificent birds, by fair means or foul, since time immemorial; until the vast hordes which formerly migrated across our continent have been sadly reduced in numbers and are now confined to certain favored localities. Fortunately the breeding grounds of this species are so remote that they are not likely to be invaded by the demands of agriculture; and fortunately the birds are so wary that they are not likely to be exterminated on migrations or in their winter resorts.

Spring: Dr. D. G. Elliot (1898) says of the start on the spring migration:

At the advent of spring the swan begin to show signs of uneasiness, and to make preparations for their long journey to the northward. They gather in large flocks and pass much of their time preening their feathers, keeping up a constant flow of loud notes, as though discussing the period of their departure and the method and direction of their course. At length all being in readiness, with loud screams and many who -whoos, they mount into the air, and in long lines wing their way toward their breeding places amid the frozen north. It has been estimated that swan travel at the rate of 100 miles an hour with a moderate wind in their favor to help them along. The American swan is monogamous, and once mated the pair are presumed to be faithful for life. The young keep with their parents for the first year, and these little families are only parted during that period by the death of Its members.

Being early migrants, swans are often overtaken by severe storms with disastrous results, as the following incident, related by George B. Sennett (1880), will illustrate:

An unusual flight of swans occurred in northwestern Pennsylvania on the 22d of last March (1879). On the day mentioned, as well as the previous day and night, a severe storm prevailed, the rain and snow freezing as they fell. The swans, on their migration north, were caught in the storm and, becoming overweighted with ice, soon grew so exhausted that they settled into the nearest ponds and streams, almost helpless. Generally a single one was seen in some mill pond or creek, and the fowling piece, loaded with large shot, and not infrequently the rifle, was used to bring to bag the noble game, though, considering the plight they were in, in all probability anyone might have paddled up to the birds and taken them alive. In fact, in a number of instances they were reported as thus taken alive. Large flocks were seen in some districts in the same pitiable condition. A flock of from 33 to 35 American or whistling swans surprised the inhabitants of Plumer on Saturday forenoon by alighting in the waters of Cherry Run. One of the swans was almost immediately shot at and killed, and, to the surprise of the now large crowd of men and boys, the remainder of the flock, on account of the ice accumulating on their wings, was unable to fly, and a general rush was then made for the poor birds, and 25 were captured alive by the eager fellows.

The late E. S. Cameron has sent me some very full notes on the whistling swan, which seems to be a regular spring and fall migrant through central Montana. He mentions a flock of 344 birds sccn by W. it. Felton on Mallard Lake on April 4, 1912, and a still larger flock of about a thousand birds seen by J. H. Holtman on Marshy Lake on April 10, 1911. He says:

The swans come in small flocks, at short intervals, until they sometimes aggregate several hundred individuals. While the swans are usually the earliest birds to arrive, geese may be still earlier, and this year a small flock of six Canada geese (Branta ceaodcasis con(i(tcn.sis) preceded the swans. In 1913 the first swans were observed on April 4 by Bob Morrow (one of Mr. Williain&s men), who counted 26. On April 6 W. P. Sullivan, of the Square Bntte Ranch, enumerated 25 in one flock and saw another smaller hunch of about half that number, which were too far away to count without glasses. At the present time (April 8), when we reached the lake side There were 125 swans, as we ascertained after frequent counts. These were grouped upon the southwest shore of the lake immediately below the ranch where the fine mountain stream called Alder Creek flows in. Seine were standina upon one leg in 2 or 3 inches of water, others heated asleep behind these, with their heads under their wings, and farther away watchful birds, constituting a rear guard, were sailing about. With very few exceptions the swans held one leg along the side either when swimming or resting upon the water. rfllov allowed us to examine them through binoculars for a few minutes and then all began swimming slowly for the center of the lake. Mr. Williams informed us that no matter how much the swans might be disturbed they would always return to this place, on account of the fresh water rumling in from the mountains. lie also said that unless shot at (when they would probably leave altogether) the swans might possibly remain until May 1.

Doctor Nelson (1887) writcs:

This fine bird arrives en the shore of Bering Sen in the vicinity of St. Michael early in May, and in some seasons by the 27th of April, as in 1878, when several were seen on that date about a spring hole in the lie. At this time the ground was clothed with over a foot of snow, and the sea covered, as far as could he seen, with unbroken ice. During the next few days a terrible storm of wind and snow swept over the country, but did these birds no harm, as was seen directly after the storm ceased by their presence at the x~-ater hole as usual. Mr. Dali records their arrival on the Yukon about May 1, and notes the fact of their descending that stream in place of going up the Yukon, as most of the geese do at this season.

Courtship: Alfred M. Bailey has sent me the following account of this ceremony which he witnessed in Alaska:

At Wales I saw swans rarely, the first noted being on June 5, when I witnessed as pleasing a performance as it has been my privilege to see. Tile tundra was still clothed In its winter’s coat of white, although pools of brilliant colors had formed here and there by the melting snow. It was in the height of the spring migration, with hundreds of snow geese, little brown cranes, and shore birds in sight continually. Then, far out on the tundra I heard a different call, a clamoring, quavering call, first full and loud and gradually dying down. With the aid of the glasses I made out three swans, possibly two males performing for the benefit of the female. They walked about with arched necks proudly lifted, taking high steps, with wings outstretched, two hiri~s occasionally bo~i’ing to each other, and as they performed, they continually kept calling. After a few minutes in a given place, they took to wing and drifted across the tundra a hundred yards, where the ceremony was then repeated.

Nesting: Doctor Nelson (1887) describes the nest, as follows:

The birds arrive singly or in small parties on the coast, and directly after scatter to their summer haunts. The nest is usually upon a small island in some secluded lakelet, or on a rounded bank close to the border of a pond. The eggs are deposited in a depression made in a heap of rubbish gathered by the birds from the immediate vicinity of the nest, and is composed of grass, moss, and dead leaves, forming a bulky affair in many cases. On June 14, 1880, a swan was seen flying from the side of a small pond on the marsh near St. Michael, and a close search finally revealed the nest. The eggs were completely hidden in loose moss, which covere4 the ground about the spot, and in which the bird had made a depression by plucking up the moss and arranging it for the purpose. The site was so artfully chosen and prepared that I passed the spot In my search, and one of my native hunters, coming close behind, called me back, and thrusting his stick into the moss exposed the eggs. I may note here that whenever the Eskimo of Norton Sound go egging on the marshes they Invariably carry a stick 3 or 4 feet long, which they thrust Into every suspicious tussock, bunch of grass, or spot in the moss, and if a nest is there It Is certain to be revealed by the stick striking thq eggs. They are very expert in detecting places likely to he chosen by the ducks and geese. I have seen my hunters examine the borders of a lake, after I had given it what I considered a thorough search, and unearth In one instance three geese nests and one duck’s. This was after I had acquired considerable skill In finding eggs, so it may readily be seen that the birds are very cunning In placing their nests.

Swainson and Richardson (1831) say of this species:

This swan breeds on the seacoast within the Arctic Circle, and Is seen In the interior of the fur countries on its passage only. It makes its appearance amongst the latest of the migratory birds in the spring, while the trumpeter swans are, with the exception of the eagles, the earliest. Captain Lyon describes its nest as built of moss peat, nearly 6 feet long and 4% wIde, and 2 feet high exteriorly; the cavity a foot and a half in diameter. The eggs were brownish-white, slightly clouded with a darker tint.

According to Rev. C. IV. G. Eifrig (1905) the Canadian Neptune Expedition to Hudson Bay found this swan common on Southampton Island; also in the flat land north of Repulse Bay. They breed in lowlands with lakes, where their nests, constructed of seaweed, grass, and moss, are very conspicuous. They are very bulky affairs, about 3 feet in diameter at the base, tapering to 18 inches at the top, and 18 inches high. A set of 2 eggs was taken on Southampton, July 4, 1904.

Mr. Bailey has contributed the following notes on a nest he found in Alaska:

While collecting near Mint River, which empties into Lopp Lagoon about 20 miles north of Cape Prince of ~\’ales, I found a nest of this species with three downy young. It was early in the morning that we discovered It, on July 12. Both adults were seen sitting close to the edge of a pond, and, as we approached, they flew majestically away, only to circle asd sail back directly over our heads. The female was more stained than the male. There, near the water’s edgo, from where the parent birds had taken flight, were three beautiful little downy young, which had just left the nest, some 25 feet away, and were doubtless ready to undertake their lirst s~vim. They were as fluffy as halls of yarn, with dark brown eyes, and bills and feet of pink flesh-color. They showed no fear, and cuddled contentedly when we held them in our hands.

The nest was a conspicuous, built-up mound of moss on a ridge overlooking the little lagoon, and was unlined with down. From the size of the young, It was evident that the swans made their nest on the first bit of bare tundra. The swaas are probably among the first birds to nest in the vicinity of IVales; the geese eggs were but half incubated at this time, while the loons’ eggs were fresh.

The swans owe their present-day numbers to the fact that they nest over a wide stretch of barren country, uniahabited even by natives. They are continually persecuted on their breeding grounds, and were it not for their habit of nesting early, when the snow is deep and too soft for traveling, they would have been exterminated long ago.

Eggs: The fore aoina brief accounts are about all we have regarding the nesting habits of this well-known species. MacFarlane collected about 20 sets of eggs, but said very little about the nests. The usual number of eggs seems to be 4 or 5, though as few as 2 and as many as 7 have been reported. The eggs resemble goose eggs except that they are much larger. In shape they are elliptical ovate or elliptical oval, with a tendency toward fusiform in some specimens. The shell is fairly smooth or finely granulated and not glossy. The color is creamy white or dull white at first, becoming much nest stained. The measurements of 94 eggs, in various collections, average 106.9 by 08.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 115.7 by 68.5. 115 by 73, and 90 by 58.7 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be from 35 to 40 days. Doctor Nelson (1887) says of the young:

The last of June or first of July the young are hatched, and soon after the parents lead them to the vicinity of some large lake or stream, and there the old birds molt their quill feathers and are unable to fly. They are pursued by the natives at this season, and many are speared from canoes and kyaks. Although unable to fly, it is no easy task single handed to capture them alive. The young men among the Eskimo consider it a remarkable exhibition of fleetness and endurance for one of their number to capture a bird by running it down.

Plumages: The downy young is described by Dr. D. G. Elliot (1898) as “pure white, bill, legs, and feet yellow”; but the young of European swans are all either pale grayish-white or grayishbrown.

Doctor Nelson (1887) describes a young bird taken in September, apparently in juvenile plumage, as follows:

The young birds of the year frequently retain the immature plumage until the last of September. A specimen in this plumage, taken on September 19, had its bill purplish flesh color, the nail and a border along the gape black; the iris hazel, and the feet and tarsi livid flesh color. The plumage of this bird, which is now before me, Is sooty brownish with a plumbeons shade about the top and sides of the head; neck and throat all around dull plumbeous ashy of a light shade; back, tertials, and wing coverts dull plumbeous ashy with a silvery gray luster, especially upon the wings. Rump white, lightly washed with ashy, which increases to dull plumbeous ashy on the tail coverts and rectrices. Quills white, heavily mottled with ashy gray on their terminal third, but almost immaculate toward bases. Under surface xvhite, washed with dingy gray.

Doctor Sharpless, quoted by Audubon (1840), says:

The swan requires five or six years to reach its perfect maturity of size and plumage, the yearling cygnet being about one-third the magnitude of the adult, and having feathers of a deep leaden color. The smallest swan I have ever examined, and it was killed in my presence, weighed bat 8 pounds. Its plumage was very deeply tinted, and it had a bill of a very beautiful flesh color, and very soft. This cygnet, I presume, was a yearling, for I killed one myself the same day, whose feathers were less dark, but whose bill was of a dirty white; and the bird weighed 12 pounds.

Doctor Elliot (1898) also writes:

The young of this species is gray, sometimes lead color durink its first year, and the bill is soft and reddish in hue. In the second year the plumage is lighter, and the bill white, becoming black in the third year, when the plumage, though white, is mottled with gray; the head and neck especially showing but little white. It is probable that it takes fully five years before the pure white dress is assumed and the bird becomes such an ornamental object.

Although Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) make a similar statement, I can not believe that it takes a swan any such length of time to acquire its full plumage. Witherby’s Handbook (1921) seems to imply that the pure white plumages of the whooping swan and the Bewick swan are acquired before the second winter.

Hon. K. M. Barnes tells me that young swans, reared by him in confinement, acquired their full plumage during the sccoud summer or fall, when 14 or 15 months old. I believe that this is usually the case with wild birds, though some traces of immaturity may not disappear until some time during the following winter or even spring.

Food: The food of the whistling swan is largely vegetable, which it obtains by reaching down with its long neck in shalloxv water. occasionallv tippina up with its tail in the air when making an extra long reach. While a flock of swans is feeding in this manner, one or more birds are always on guard watching for approaching dangers, as the feeding birds often keep their heads and necks submerged for long periods. It apparently never dives for its food except in cases of great extrmnity. In Back Bay, Virginia, and in Currituck Sound, North Carolina, the swans feast on the roots of the wild celery and fox-tail grass; they are now (1916) 50 numerous that they do considerable damage by treading great holes in the mud and by rooting and pulling up the celery and grass; they thus waste large quantities of these valuable duck foods, much more than they consume, and consequently spoil some of the best feeding grounds for ducks, much to the disgust of the sportsmen in the various clubs, who are not allowed to shoot the swans and have to submit to this interference with their (luck shooting. The swans are really such a nuisance in this particular locality that a reasonable amount of shooting might well he allowed; these birds are so wary that there is little danger of any great number being killed.

Major Bendire (1875) found in the stomach of a whistling swan, shot in Oregon, “about 20 small shells, perhaps half an inch in length, quite a quantity of gravel, and a few small seeds.” Mr. Cameron in his Montana notes, says:

The swans were eugoged in feeding upon the soft-shelled fresh-water snails which abound in this lake and explain its great attraction for them. During the several (lays that I watched the swans I never saw them eat anything else, but doubtless they pick up vegetation as well, being accustomed to walk about in the grass at the mouth of Alder Creek. Marshy Lake is so shallow (only 2 feet deep over most of it, and 4 feet in the deepest part) that the long-necked birds can generally reach the mollusca without much tilting of their bodies in characteristic swan fashion.

Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1891) says: “They feed upon corn, and upon tender roots of wheat, rye, and grass, and upon bulbous roots, pushing about for them in the mud at the bottom of lakes and rivers. They also catch and eat tadpoles, frogs, and even fish.” Other writers have mentioned, among the food of this species, the roots of the Equisetacae, ~S’agittaria, various grasses, and other succulent water plants, also worms, insects, and shellfish.

Behavior: Considering its size and weight, a swan rises from the water with remarkable ease and celerity; it runs along the surface for 15 or 20 feet, flapping its wings and beating the water with its feet alternately, until it has gained sufficient headway to launch into the air; like all heavy-bodied birds it must face the wind in rising. When well awing it flies with considerable spced and power, with the long neck stretched out in front and the great black feet extending beyond the tail; the wing beats are slow, but powerful and effective. It has been said to fly at a speed of 100 miles an hour; probably no such speed is attained, howevcr, except when flying before a heavy wind; it undoubtedly flies faster than it appears to on account of its 0-reat. size, and it certainly flies faster than any of the ducks and geese. When traveling long distances swans fly in V-shaped wedges, in the same manner as geese and for the same reason: the resistance of the air is less, as each bird flies in the widening wake of its predecessor; the leader, of course, has the hardest work to do, as he “breaks the trail,” but he is relieved at intervals and drops back into the flock to rest. On shorter flights they fly in long curving lines or in irregular flocks. They usually fly rather high, and when traveling are often way up above the clouds. Audubon (1840) quotes Doctor Sharpless, as follows:

In flying. t1ics~ birds maim a strange appearance; their long necks protrude and present, at a distance, mere lines with black points, and occupy more than one-half their whole length, their heavy bodies and triangular wings seeming but mere appendages to the prolonged po;nt in front.

When thus in motion, their wings paSs thironghi so few degrees of the circle that, unless seen horizontally, they appear almost quiescent, being widely different from the heavy semicirculai sweep of the goose. The swan, when migrating, with a iuoderate wind in his favor, and mounted high in the air, certainly travels at the rate of 100 miles or more an hour. I have often timed the Ilight of the goose, and found one mile a minute a common rapidity, and when the two birds, in a change of feeding ground, have h)een flying near each other, which I have often seen, the swan invariably passed ~vitlm nearly double the velocity.

Mr. CaIneron, in his notes, refers to the powers of flight of swans, as follows:

Small parties of the swans on the water spread their long wings at regular intervals and took lengthy flights, presumably to keep themselves in practice for their forthcoming journey. The control which such large birds (weighing from 17 to 20 pounds) possess over their flight on a perfectly calm day is to me quite marvelous, and must be seen to be appreciated. A compact flock of from 4 to 6 swift-flying swans will circle the whole basin of the lake several times, and then, as if tied together, alight in the closest proximity to each other, yet never collide. They will pitch upon the water in the most graceful manner imaginable, without bringing their long legs forward, or making any splash. At exceptional times, however, the swan5 do make a loud splash when they alight.

The ease and grace with which a swan swims on the surface of the water is too well known and too far famed to need any further coinment; there is no prettier picture, no grander picture, than a party of these beautiful birds floating undisturbed on the mirror surface of some northern mountain lake against the rugged background of one of nature’s wildest spots. But few people realize the speed and power of the s~van as a swimmer until they have tried to chase one in a boat and seen how easily he escapes, even against wind and waves, without recourse to flight.

The notes of the whistling swan are varied, loud and striking at times and again soft and musical trumpetings. To me they are suggestive of the Canada goose’s call in form, but are more like soft musical laughter, suggested by the syllables “wow-liow-ou,” heavily accented on the second note. Mr. Cameron says, in his notes:

Mr. Skelton describes the sounds uttered by his tame swan as “long whoops, or clucking croaks, according to its mood.” The wild swans upon taking wing, or when arriving on migration, produce sounds like a slow shake of two notes upon a clarinet. If the flock is large, as in the present instance, so many throats yield a great volume of musical sound. When the Quiescent swans become suddenly alarmed, and contemplate flight, a subdued chorus runs through the flock like different modulations from an orchestra of reed instruments. Under no circumstances could the swan voices be coml)nred to brass instruments (such as a trumpet or hunting horn) in my opinion, and herein concur Mr. Felton, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Skelton, who have had frequent opportunities for listening to them. We could distinctly hear the swan cries at the ranch a mile from the lake, and they might have been heard at a much greater distance.

The old saying that “a sxvan sings before it dies” has generally been regarded as a myth, but the following incident, related by so reliable an observer as Dr. D. G. Elliot (1898), is certainly worthy of credence:

I had killed many swan and never heard aught from them at any time, save the familiar notes that reach the ears of everyone in their vicinity. But once, when shooting in Currituck Sound over water belonging to a club of which I am a member, in company with a friend, Mr. F. W~. Leggett, of New York, a number of swan passed over us at a considerable height. We fired at them, and one splendid bird was mortally hurt. On receiving his wound the wings became fixed and lie commenced at once his song, xvlmich was continued uatil the water was reached, nearly half a pmile away. I am perfectly familiar with every note a swan is accustomed to utter, but never before nor since have I heard any like those sung by this stricken bird. Most plaintive in character and musical in tone, it sounded at times like the soft running of the notes in an octave, and as tIme sound was borne to us, mellowed by the distance, we stood astonished, and could only exclaim, ” We have heard the song of the dying swan.”

Fall: Referring to the beginning of the fall migration, Mr. Lucien M. Turner (1886) says:

The young are able to leave time inmost by the first week in July, and fly by the umiddle of September. They migrate about the middle of October, and mit this time the migration is invariably to the northward from St. Michael, and directed toward the bead of Norton Sound. As many as 500 may form a single line, flying silently just over the shore line at a height of less than 600 feet. I always suspected that these birds flew to the northward as far as the Ulukuk Portage, in about 650 30′ north latitude, so as to get to the Yukon River at Nulato, about 120 miles in tbe interior of the Territory, and continue their flight up the Yukon River, which would in its course let these birds more easily cross the Rocky Mountain ridge with least effort. This is supposed by the fact that I never saw swans, at any season of the year, migrating to the southward.

From this statement and similar observations by Dali and Nelson, one would infer that the swans which breed in northern Alaska cross the Rocky Mountains to join the main migration route of the species, which is southward through the interior of Canada; perhaps the birds which breed in southern Alaska and in Canada xvest of the Rockies migrate down the coast to their winter homes on the Pacific coast. Swans are very abundant in the interior of Canada and the northern States in the fall migration. Large numbers were formerly killed by the fur traders for their skins which were dealt in as regular articles of commerce. The Hudson’s Bay Co. sold 17,671 swan skins between the years 1853 to 1877; the number steadily decreased, however, from 1,312 in 1854 to 122 in 1877, and during the next two or three years the traffic practically ceased.

From the vicinity of the Great Lakes the heaviest flight seems to take a southeastward direction to the Atlantic coast, but there is also a southward flight to the Gulf of Mexico and probably a limited southwestward flight to the Pacific coast.

A striking example of the disasters which may befall even one of our largest and strongest species of wild fowl is shown in the destruction of swans in the Niagara swan trap. In one instance over 100 of these great birds met their death; being caught in the rapids they were swept over the falls; many were killed by the fall, others were killed or maimed by the rough treatment they received ~n the whirlpools and rapids, where they were hurled against the rocks or crushed in the ice; a few probably escaped by flying back over the falls, but most of them were unable to fly at all on account of their injuries or were too exhausted to rise high enough to clear the falls. But eventually many of them would have escaped if they had not been attacked by a crowd of men and boys, who shot, beat, and clubbed the poor struggling birds until not a living bird remained. For full accounts of two such catastrophes I would refer the reader to Mr. J. H. Fleming’s (1908 and 1912) interesting papers on the subject.

Game: As game birds, swans have never held a prominent place. They are not abundant anywhere except in a few favored spots, as migrants or winter sojourners. They have always been so wary and shy that attempts to shoot them in any considerable numbers generally resulted in making them wilder than ever or in driving them away altogether. The flesh of the younger birds is comparatively tender and palatable, but the older birds are very tough. Swans always have been attractive marks for sportsmen on account of their large size and spectacular appearance, but comparatively few have ever enjoyed the privilege of shooting at them. Swans are now protected in their winter resorts on the Atlantic coast, but formerly they were shot in considerable numbers in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay and Curritucic Sound. They were shot mainly from the marshy points where blinds were built for duck shooting; the swans were wont to feed along the shores of the marshy coves and bays; and in passing from one cove to another they frequently flew close around or over these points, offering tempting shots. It was an exciting moment for the sportsman when he saw a flock of these great white birds approaching and few could resist the temptation to shoot at them. On windy, stormy days it was often possible to creep up to them through the marsh near enough to get a shot at them when they rose. Approaching swans on the open water of the bay was a different proposition, especially if they were surrounded, as they often were, by the watchful geese. But even this xvas successfully accomplished by sailing down the wind upon them, which made it necessary for them to rise toxvard the boat. In winter, boats covered with blocks of ice and manned by gunners dressed in white could sometimes be paddled or allowed to drift xvithin gunshot of a feeding flock.

Winter: Doctor Sharpless, in his interesting account of this species published by Audubon (1840), thus describes the arrival of the swans in their principal winter home on the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina:

The swans, in traveling from the northern parts of America to their winter residence, generally keep far inland, mounted above the highest peaks of the Allegheny, and rarely follow the watercourses like the geese, which usually stop on the route, particularly if they have taken the seaboard. The swans rarely pause on their migrating flight, unless overtaken by a storm, above the reach of which occurrence they generally soar. They have been seen following the coast in but very few instances. They arrive at their winter homes in October and November, and immediately take possession of their regular feeding grounds. They generally reach these places in the night, and the first signal of their arrival at their winter abode is a general burst of melody, making the shores ring for several hours with the vociferating congratulations whilst making amends for a long fast, and pluming their deranged feathers. From these localities they rarely depart unless driven farther south by intensely cold weather, until their vernal excursion.

The Chesapeake Hay is a great resort for swans during the winter, and whilst there they form collections of from 100 to 500 on the flats, near the western shores, and extend from the outlet of the Susquehanna River almost to time Rip Raps. The connecting streams also present fine feeding grounds.

They always select places where they can reach their food by the lengths of their necks, as they have never, so far as I can learn, been seen in this part of the world to dive under the water, either for food or safety.

Whistling swans are still abundant in winter on Bay Back. Virginia, and Currituck Sound, North Carolina, where, according to recent accounts, tiley are holding their own or even increasina in numbers. I have seen from 1,000 to 1,500 birds there in a day, as recently as 1916, standing in long white lines along the grassy shore of some marshy island, or feeding in large flocks, sometimes of two or three hundred birds, in the shallow waters of the bay, always conspicuous as striking features of these great wild-fowl resorts. Their chief companions here are the Canada geese. with whom they are intimately associated on their feeding grounds and on whom they depend largely, as sentinels to warn them of approaching danger, for the geese are even more watchful than the swans. But here, as well as on the lakes visited on their migration, they are also associated with the various ducks which resort to similar feeding grounds. They usually flock by themselves, however, when on the wing and do not mingle in the flocks of geese and ducks. They move about largely in family parties of 6 or 7 birds, but often gather together in large flocks to feed or to rest; large flocks are also often seen moving about, sometimes high in the air, calling to their fellows with loud mellow trumpetings in their search for quiet and safe feeding or resting places.

Nathan L. Davis (1895), writing of their winter habits on the coast of Texas, says:

I first saw them on Galveston nay on January 1, and observed them every (lay until March 20, when there seemed to be hut a very few left; all rema~ning on that date I think were crippled birds, being unable to stand the fatigue in their long journey to the north. It is a great sight to watch a flock of these birds assembled on the water, curling their long necks around each other, all making a strange honking noise, peculiar to themselves. This they continue for some time, then all turn with military precision and form in line; when they swim up and down the coast, proudly swaying their heads from side to side. In this manner they spend most of the bright days. They can be easily seen far out on the bay, their large white bodies glistening in the sun, as the restless waves toss their corklike forms above the level of the water. At first sight I could not distinguish whether the silvery spots rising on the waves were swans or the water breaking over some treacherous sandbar, which are common both in Galveston and San Jacinto Bays. Each day as the sun begins to go down they turn and slowly approach the shore, each keeping a sharp lookout ahead. If frightened any way they will either turn and swim quietly away or all take wing and survey the country for miles around before they will again settle on the water. Often small flocks may be seen in company with ducks, geese, pelicans, and gulls, but usually they will be found alone at some distance from all other birds, as well as human habitation. They are very hard to approach on a bright day, and hunting for them in clear weather is like fishing for trout in a thunderstorm. The dense fogs which prevail along the coast are no doubt the worst enemies these birds have, for then if the hunter is careful he can approach within easy range before they attempt to escape.

In stormy weather they are very restless and are continually flying from place to place as if hunting for a quiet spot, where they may rest in peace till the storm passes. In this continuous change of positions they often come too near the shore, and many are killed by the hunters who lay hidden, axvaiting their approach. I once saw five of these large birds killed at a single discharge of a heavy doable gun.

The tragic end of a belated cripple on a Montana lake is thus described in Mr. Cameron’s notes:

In the fall of 1908, a member of a large flock of whistling swans, which settled upon Marshy Lake, was slightly wounded in the wing by a bullet (or, as is more probable, had a flight feather cut away by it) and could not leave with its frightened companions. Mr. Sullivan observed the swan about a dozen times when driving cattle to another Mimer ranch near Shoukin, and when returning by the same route, lie informed me that after the lake became frozen over, the swan, which was an adult in pure white plumage, by constantly swimming in a circle, kept open a small pond, about 25 feet wide. Until December 1 he regularly saw the swan upon this pond, which it was able to maintain open even when the ice was 3 inches thick upon the rest of the lake. The swan frequently dived, but was, of course, always obliged to come up in the same place on account of the ice; and Mr. Sullivan supposed that the poor bird eked out a scanty subsistence by means of the weeds or other food which it found at the bottom of the lake. The fate of this swan, though not absolutely known, can easily be surmised. Numerous coyotes, which crossed upon the ice, persistently menaced, and would have devoured the unfortunate bird but for its self-made asylum; hence, xvith the advent of colder weather, and consequent freezing up of the water, it would have undoubtedly become their prey. The above suggests a wintry scene which would be a fitting subject for an artists’s brush; the famished prisoner swimming around the dark refuge pool, the scarcely less hungry jailers patrolling the ice edge and licking their expectant lips, the white world, and the onward creeping ice, grim with inexorable fate.

Breeding range: Nearctic region, mainly north of the Arctic Circle. East to Baffin Land. South to Nottingham and Southampton Islands, the barren grounds of northern Canada, the Alaska Peninsula (Beeharof Lake, Chulitna River and Morzhovia Bay), and St. Lawrence Island in Bering Sea. Northward in Alaska to the Arctic coast (Cape Prince of Wales and probably Point Barrow). North on the Arctic islands to about 74’~, the North Georgia Islands, and Victoria Land (Cambridge Bay).

Winter range: Mainly on the seacoasts of United States. On the Atlantic coast most abundantly from Maryland (Chesapeake Bay) to North Carolina (Currituck Sound); less commonly north to New Jersey; rarely north to Long Island (Shinnecock) and Massaehusetts (Nantucket). Rarely south to Florida and the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas. On the Pacific coast from southern Alaska (Dali, Long, and Prince of Wales Islands) southward to southern California (San Diego). A few may winter irregularly in the interior as far north as large bodies of open water may be found.

Spring migration: Toward the interior and generally northward. Early dates of arrival: Pennsylvania, Erie, March 11, and Williamsport, March 20; New York, Lockport, March 20; Ontario, Toronto, April 8; Michigan, Detroit, March 14; Wisconsin, Delavan, April 1 Minnesota, 1-leron Lake, March 31 and Elk River, April 8; Mauitoba, Shoal Lake, April 30; northern Alberta, Athabasca Lake. May 17; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson. May 5, and Fort Anderson, May 18; Melville Island, May 31. Dates of arrival in Alaska: St.. Michael, April 27; Kowak River. May 11; Point Hope, May 21. Late dates of departure: Maryland, Baltimore, May 4; Pennsylvania., Williamsport, May 30.

Fall migration: Reversal of spring routes. Early dates of arrival: Mackenzie, Great Bear Lake, September 15, and Mackenzie River, October 6; Quebec, Cape St. Ignace, October 11: Maine, Crawford Lake, September 10; New hampshire, Seabrook, October iS; Massachusetts, Nantucket., October 16; Rhode Island. Quonocontaug Pond, November 9; Maryland, Baltimore, September 26; Virginia, Alexandria, October 15; South Carolina, Cooper River. November 21: Alaska, Sitka, September 28; Washington, Thurston County. October 25; Montana, Teton County, October 31. Late dates of departure: Alaska, St. Michael, October 8, and St. George Island, October 17.

Casual records: Accidental in Bermuda (1835 or 1836) and Commander Islands (Bering Island, November 3, 1882). Casual in Mexico (near Colonia Diaz, Chihuahua, January 18, 1904, and at Silao, Guanajuato).

Egg dates: Arctic Canada: Thirteen records, May 29 to July 5; seven records, June 15 to July 1. Alaska: Ten records, May 17 to July 4; five records, June 4 to 12.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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