I recently had an email from a member of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust inquiring about some wildlife she had recently viewed on the Kinnickinnic River. The question went like this…
“About 4:30 p.m. yesterday, I was in my car at the stoplight nearest your office, and a half-dozen or so enormous white birds took off from the Kinni. The looked like swans (but not trumpeter swans). Are they tundra swans? Or was I hallucinating?”
What a great question! How many of you have wondered the same thing? I have as I have viewed the “enormous white birds” regularly from my office window over the last couple of weeks – at times in groups as large as 6 or more. This question and my recent observations made me want to learn more about this magnificent bird and share it with you.
We know that the Kinni supports a diversity of wildlife species and plant communities – that’s one of the things that makes it so great to live in this community – in this watershed.
I was pleased to report back to this member that she was not hallucinating, it was not the smaller and more arctic based Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus), but she had just observed the great Trumpeter Swan, (Cygnus buccinator).
This grand bird is the largest living waterfowl species on earth. How cool is that? How wonderful that our watershed community is healthy enough to provide habitat for this magnificent creature – right here in the Kinni watershed!
Males (also known as Cobs) typically measure from 57 to 64 inches and weigh 26 lb); females typically range from 55 to 59 in and weigh 22 lb. The average wingspan is 6.7 ft).Â Exceptionally large male Trumpeters can reach a length of 72 in, a wingspan of 9.8 ft and a weight of 38 lb – now that’s a big bird! The Trumpeter Swan is closely related to the Whooper Swan of Eurasia, and even has been considered the same species by some authorities.
These birds have white plumage with a long neck, a black bill subtly marked with salmon-pink along the mouthline, and usually has short black legs. Leg colors may vary. The cygnets (juveniles) are gray in appearance, becoming white after the first year.Â The Tundra Swan more closely resembles the Trumpeter, but is quite a bit smaller and usually has yellow lores. Although extremely rare, Trumpeter Swans have been known to have yellow lores. Distinguishing Tundra and Trumpeter Swans from a distance (when size is harder to gauge) is quite challenging, and can often be done only with experience and knowledge of structural details.
Their breeding habitat is large shallow ponds and wide slow rivers in northwestern and central North America, with the largest numbers of breeding pairs found in Alaska. Natural populations of these swans migrate to and from the Pacific coast and portions of the United States, flying in V-shaped flocks. In the winter they migrate to the southern tier of Canada, the eastern part of the northwest states in the United States, especially to the Red Rock Lakes area of Montana, and have even been observed as far south as Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Historically they ranged as far south as Texas and southern California.
In recent years, though, the distribution of Trumpeter Swan has changed, with an active and quite successful reintroduction program establishing a breeding population in the Great Lakes region. So now the species shows up regularly in our area in winter. Birders who werenâ€™t considering Trumpeter Swan in their identification process a few years ago now have to do so.
These birds feed while swimming, sometimes up-ending or dabbling to reach submerged food. The diet is almost entirely aquatic plants. In winter, they may also eat grasses and grains in fields. The young are fed on insects and small crustaceans along with plants at first, changing to a vegetation-based diet over the first few months. Predators of Trumpeter Swan eggs include Common Raven (Corvus corax), Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor), Wolverine (Gulo gulo), American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), Coyote (Canis latrans), Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and Northern River Otter (Lontra canadensis). Most of the same predators will prey on young cygnets, as will Common Snapping Turtle (Chelhydra serpentina), California Gull (Larus californicus), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and American Mink (Mustela vison). Larger cygnets and nesting adults are preyed on by Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Bobcat (Lynx rufus), Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and Coyote. Few predators, apart from the Bobcat and possibly the Golden Eagle, are capable of taking adults when they are not nesting.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Trumpeter Swan was hunted heavily, both as game and a source of feathers. This species is also unusually sensitive to lead poisoning while young. These birds once bred in North America from northwestern Indiana west to Oregon in the U.S., and in Canada from James Bay to the Yukon, and they migrated as far south as Texas and southern California. The trumpeter was rare or extinct in most of the United States by the early twentieth century. Many thousands survived in the core range in Canada and Alaska, however, where populations have since rebounded.
Early efforts to reintroduce this bird into other parts of its original range, and to introduce it elsewhere, have had only modest success, as suitable habitats have dwindled and the released birds do not undertake migrations. More recently, the population in all three major population regions have shown sustained growth over the past thirty year period. Data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show 400% growth in that period, with signs of increasing growth rates over time.Â Despite lead poisoning in the wild from shotgun pellets, the prospects for restoration are considered good.
The Trumpeter Swan is classified as a species of greatest conservation need in Wisconsin and information can be found at WDNR Trumpeter Swan.Â The Trumpeter Swan is listed as threatened in the state of Minnesota. Minnesota’s Trumpeter Swan restoration efforts.
For a detailed comparison between the Trumpeter Swan and the Tundra Swan check out Distinguishing Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.