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Trumpeter Swans

By John Dunn, PGC Wildlife Biologist -
The trumpeter swan is the largest species of native North American waterfowl with adults averaging between 21 and 30 pounds. Some large males have been reported to exceed 35 pounds. Trumpeter swans are spectacular to view in flight with a wingspan approaching eight feet. In North America, only the California Condor and White Pelican have larger wingspans.

Trumpeters are often confused with the tundra swan, the only other native North American swan. Although larger than the tundra, which average 15 pounds, the two species are difficult to identify in the field. Trumpeters have a larger, more massive bill and most tundra swans (about 80%) have a yellow spot known as a lore in front of the eye. The most reliable way to identify these two swans from a distance is by voice. The trumpeter's Latin name buccinare means trumpet which accurately defines the sound of this swan. The bugle-like sounds have often been compared to the melodies of the French horn. The trumpeter's longer and more convoluted windpipe produces a deeper, resonating sound than the higher-pitched, quavering vocalizations of tundra swans.

Pennsylvania also is home to another swan: the undesirable, exotic mute swan. Mute swans harass native waterfowl and uproot large quantities of aquatic vegetation that many other species of wildlife depend upon. Mute swans are readily identified by their orange-colored bill and the black knob on their forehead at the base of the bill. Their posture of holding their neck in an "S" shape also is a dead giveaway. Trumpeters and tundras hold their necks upright and straight.

Trumpeter swans establish life-long mates at about three years of age and nest the following year. They choose a nesting location close to water, usually on a small island, beaver lodge or muskrat house. The male gathers nest material, uprooting marsh plants such as cattails, sedges, bulrushes and horsetail, and brings them to the female for nest construction. Their immense, bulky nests can exceed 12 feet in diameter.

Once the nest is complete, the female lays one egg every other day until she has a full clutch, usually from three to nine eggs. It takes about 35 days for the female to incubate the eggs while the male stands guard nearby defending the nest from predators and other swans. Trumpeters are attentive, aggressive parents; few of their nests are lost to predators. Young swans, known as "cygnets," are precocial and are quickly swimming and feeding on aquatic insects and crustaceans. As they develop, their diet changes to primarily aquatic vegetation. Growth is rapid and by 14 to 17 weeks of age, the cygnets are ready to take wing.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers and fur traders, the trumpeter swan's breeding range extended along a wide band from the Bering Sea, east through almost all of Canada and south to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. There is little evidence to support that trumpeters were breeding in Pennsylvania, although they most certainly passed through the Commonwealth during migration to wintering areas on the Atlantic Coast. Skeletal remains dating from around 1600 have been found in Huntingdon and Lancaster counties at American Indian archaeological sites.

American colonists along the Atlantic Coast probably began killing wintering migrant swans, both trumpeters and tundras, for subsistence uses. As explorers, missionaries and fur traders spread westward, they, along with American Indians, who had replaced their primitive weapons with firearms, decimated trumpeters on their breeding grounds. Market hunting and the millinery trade rapidly depleted nesting populations during the 19th century. Swan skins were sold in the fur trade to Europe where they were used to make ladies' powder puffs; feathers were used to adorn fashionable hats; and feather quills were highly sought after for writing pens in colonial times. More than 100,000 swan skins, most of which were trumpeters, were recorded as being sold by the Hudson Bay company between 1823 and 1880. The tundra swan, which nests in the more northerly reaches of the arctic, did not receive the same degree of persecution that the more southerly nesting trumpeters endured.

By 1900, a century of unregulated killing had nearly wiped out the entire continent's population of trumpeter swans from all but several isolated breeding areas. Fortunately, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed by Congress in 1918 and gave protection to swans and other migratory birds. In 1932, a remnant population of fewer than 70 birds was discovered near Yellowstone National Park. This area became the Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1935. This refuge protected the population that existed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and represented the only wild population in the lower 48 states. Today, estimates show about 16,000 trumpeter swans reside in North America, including some 13,000 in Alaska, which winter on the Pacific Coast; more than 1,600 in Canada; about 500 in the Midwest; and more than 500 in the tri-state area of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

"Several state and provincial wildlife agencies have launched efforts recently to restore the trumpeter to its former range. Reintroduction programs are currently underway or completed in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Ontario. An experiment to develop techniques to establish a migratory population of trumpeters in the Atlantic flyway was begun in 2000. This experiment is being conducted by Environmental Studies at Airlie Virginia and will imprint young trumpeters on ultra-light aircraft to try to establish a migratory route from New York to a wintering site in Chesapeake Bay. If successful, this technique could then be used to reestablish a migratory population of trumpeters in the Atlantic flyway".

Observations of trumpeters in Pennsylvania, although still uncommon, have increased in recent years due to the reintroduction efforts of surrounding states and Ontario. Most trumpeters observed in our state are marked with coded neckbands or legbands. While the trumpeter will probably never become as commonplace as the tundra swan here, it is rewarding to know that one has a chance to see North America's largest and most majestic waterfowl species in the Commonwealth.

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797