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Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

On wintry days, flocks of North America’s most numerous swans gather on lakes and estuaries or descend out of gray skies. A characteristic whistling in their wings led Meriwether Lewis to call them “whistling swans,” a name still in use. These elegant creatures—slightly smaller than our other native species, the Trumpeter Swan—nest on arctic tundra and visit the U.S. only on migration and in winter. Most have a smudge of yellow at the base of their black bill, but otherwise are pure white.

Keys to identification Help

Ducklike
Ducklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Tundra Swans are very large waterfowl with heavy bodies and long necks. The bill slopes gently away from the head.

  • Color Pattern

    Tundra Swans have entirely white plumage. The bill is mostly black and usually has a yellow spot at the base. The legs and feet are black. Immature birds are gray-tinged on the wings, head, and neck.

  • Behavior

    On the water, Tundra Swans keep their necks straight, and in the air they fly with their necks outstretched. On the water, they often tip up to forage in the manner of dabbling ducks. They form large flocks.

  • Habitat

    Tundra Swans nest on arctic tundra. Look for Tundra Swans during winter on estuaries and coastal waters, and some inland lakes. On migration and in winter, they may leave the water to feed in agricultural fields.

Range Map Help

Tundra Swan Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

Trumpeter Swans are much less numerous and widespread than Tundra Swans. Trumpeter Swans are larger and their bills are always all-black; most Tundra Swans have a yellow spot at the bill base, although this can be hard to pick out at distance. The border between the bill and the white feathers of the head has a different shape in the two species: Trumpeter has a more smooth line between mouth and eye, and the margin comes to a point on the forehead. Mute Swans have a black knob at the base of their orange bill, and they typically hold their necks in a graceful S-curve, not straight as in Tundra Swan. Snow Geese are much smaller, with shorter necks, mostly pink bills, and black wingtips that are prominent in flight and usually also visible when the wings are folded.

Regional Differences

The Eurasian subspecies of the Tundra Swan is known as Bewick’s Swan. It is slightly smaller than the North American Tundra Swan and has more yellow on the bill. Individuals are occasionally found in western North America, usually in flocks of Tundra Swans.

Find This Bird

Unless you’re in the arctic, don’t look for Tundra Swans in the summer. Instead, look for them on large bodies of water, particularly estuaries and protected coastal waters, during migration and in winter. You may also see flocks of these large white birds in agricultural fields where they are feeding on spilled or unharvested grains. Look for their distinctive straight-necked posture, as well as their characteristic large flocks, to separate them from Mute Swans.

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