Trumpeter Swan

Bird of the Month: Trumpeter Swan

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Trumpeter Swan)

PC: Mick Thompson (Trumpeter Swan)

Scientific Name: Cygnus buccinator

Length 60 in

Wingspan 80 in

Weight: 23 lb

AOU Band code TRUS

Swans have long been part of folklore as inspiration for poets, musicians and farmers. The swan song of a dying swan was said to be the first and only time a swan could sing. Cygnus is the constellation that appears to fly down the Milky Way leading to Pegasus. The Mandan people of North Dakota believed that the swan told them when it was time to plant gourds. 

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest of three North American swan species. It is a huge bird of forested habitats (Aldefer). The genus Cygnus is Latin for swan. The species name buccinator is from the Latin bucinator, a trumpet. The reference is to the call which is similar to short, alternating soft and loud bursts from a trumpet. The Trumpeter Swan is a lovely bird that is wonderfully highlighted in flight against the blue-gray winter skies of the Pacific Northwest.

A unique Pacific population breeds in the boreal forest of Alaska and northwestern Canada and many of these birds winter in the Skagit Valley. Studies indicate that the Skagit birds breed in the Copper River delta area (Mitchell and Eichholz). Trumpeter Swans do not migrate long distances and do so in winter primarily to locate unfrozen bodies of water. 

The Trumpeter Swan has recovered from near extirpation in the United States. Westward expansion of civilization and hunting for the swan’s meat and feathers severely decreased the Trumpeter’s population. By the 1930s, there were fewer than 100 of these birds south of Canada. Restrictions on hunting and protection of breeding areas have helped the Trumpeter Swan rebound in northwestern North America. A separate population along the Mississippi and Central flyways has been supported by a reintroduction program which has been controversial and only somewhat successful (Kaufman). The American Bird Conservancy estimates the current global population at about 35,000 individuals with 75% of them breeding in the United States, primarily in Alaska. The bird remains on the ABC Watch List (Lebbin, et al). 

Like other long-lived birds the Trumpeter Swan is a slow breeder. It can take a Trumpeter 4-7 years to mature to breeding age (Kaufman). In May or early June, both sexes bring material to the nest site, which the female has chosen by sitting on a firm surface such as a beaver mound or muskrat nest. The female then pulls the gathered plant material around and under its body forming the nest around itself. Generally 4-6 eggs are deposited. Swans are sometimes victims of brood parasitism when a Canada Goose lays an egg in the swan’s nest. The appearance of the resulting young undoubtedly puts a reverse spin on the Ugly Ducking story with the gosling the odd one out among cygnets. Incubation lasts about four weeks and the cygnets are able to swim the day they are born. The young fledge in 3-4 months (Mitchell & Eichholz). The juvenile plumage is a slate gray color and at a distance can help birders distinguish flocks of Trumpeter Swans from Tundra Swans which have juveniles with white plumage. 

The recovery of the Trumpeter Swan is considered a conservation success. The Trumpeter Swan Society has played an important role in the swans’ comback.