- 54.3–62.2 in
- 79.9 in
- 271.6–448 oz
- The largest waterfowl species in North America; slightly larger than a Mute Swan and considerably larger than a Tundra Swan.
- Cygne trompette (French)
- Cisne (Spanish)
- Trumpeter Swans are impressively large—males average over 26 pounds, making them North America’s heaviest flying bird. To get that much mass aloft the swans need at least a 100 meter-long “runway” of open water: running hard across the surface, they almost sound like galloping horses as they generate speed for take off.
- Starting in the 1600s, market hunters and feather collectors had decimated Trumpeter Swans populations by the late 1800s. Swan feathers adorned fashionable hats, women used swan skins as powder puffs, and the birds’ long flight feathers were coveted for writing quills. Aggressive conservation helped the species recover by the early 2000s.
- Overhunting of muskrats and beavers may have harmed Trumpeter Swans, too: the swans nest on their dens and dams. As the rodents’ populations recovered, breeding habitat for the swans also improved.
- Trumpeter Swans form pair bonds when they are three or four years old. The pair stays together throughout the year, moving together in migratory populations. Trumpeters are assumed to mate for life, but some individuals do switch mates over their lifetimes. Some males that lost their mates did not mate again.
- Trumpeter Swans take an unusual approach to incubation: they warm the eggs by covering them with their webbed feet.
- The Trumpeter Swan’s scientific name, Cygnus buccinator, is from the Latin Cygnus (swan) and buccinare (to trumpet). We humans have a buccinator muscle in our cheeks—we use it to blow out candles and to blow into trumpets and other instruments.
- A “voiceless” Trumpeter Swan named Louis was the main character in E. B. White’s 1970 children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan. Louis courted his partner Serena by playing a trumpet.
- Although awkward on the ground due to short legs set behind their center of gravity, they can walk more than a mile at a time, even when traveling with cygnets less than a week old.
- The oldest known Trumpeter Swan was a female, and at least 26 years, 2 months old when she was identified by her bank in the wild, in Wisconsin. One captive individual lived to be 32.
Breeding Trumpeter Swans seek relatively shallow (less than 6 feet deep), undisturbed bodies of freshwater with abundant aquatic plants. These heavy-bodied birds also need at least 100 yards of open water for their running take-offs, and muskrat or beaver dens or small islands on which to nest. Breeding sites include small ponds (including beaver and farm ponds), lakes, marshes, bogs, glacial potholes, and quiet stretches of river. As they prepare (or “stage”) for migration, Trumpeter Swans gather at sites near open water, such as inlets with moving water, and larger, deeper lakes. Wintering birds seek out ice-free sites where vegetation is available, including freshwater streams, rivers, springs and reservoirs. In the Pacific Northwest, birds roost and feed in estuaries. In the Midwest, swans may winter on deep ponds of reclaimed surface mines. Wintering swans may forage in croplands and pasture.
Trumpeter Swans are mainly vegetarians, although they occasionally eat small fish and fish eggs. Younger birds also eat aquatic insects before switching to a plant-dominated diet. Day and night, the birds feed on a broad range of aquatic plants, including pondweeds, eelgrass, marestail, sedges, rushes, duckweed, wild rice and algae. To feed underwater they tip in the air like dabbling ducks, rooting beneath the surface to twist and pull up vegetation or freeing roots by paddling their feet in the mud. In winter they eat a higher percentage of terrestrial plants and berries, such as blueberries, cranberries, lupine, wheatgrass, broom, and ryegrass. Grain crops, including corn and barley, and tubers such as potatoes and carrots also make up part of the wintertime diet.
- Clutch Size
- 4–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 4–5 in
- Egg Width
- 2.4–3.2 in
- Incubation Period
- 32–37 days
- Nestling Period
- 1 days
- Egg Description
- Creamy to dull white, often stained brown in the nest.
- Condition at Hatching
- Eyes partially open, covered in mouse-gray or occasionally white down. Leaves nest within 24 hours of hatching and has the ability to swim and feed. Is able to fly at 90–122 days after hatching.
Both sexes collect plant material to build the nest, which includes a foundation topped by a mound of aquatic vegetation, occasionally including grasses and sedges. The female uses her bill and body to shape a nest bowl atop the finished mound. The bowl’s lining may include a few feathers. Nests take 14–35 days to build and the completed oblong or circular nest mound can reach up to 11 feet across and 3 feet high, with a bowl measuring 10–16 inches across and 4–8 inches deep.
Trumpeter Swans build their nests on a site surrounded by water and usually less than 600 feet from shore. The nest is usually built on an existing structure including muskrat and beaver dens, beaver dams, floating vegetation mats, small islands, or manmade platforms. Swan pairs often use the same nest site year after year.
Trumpeter Swans fly with rapid, shallow wingbeats, often traveling in pairs or family groups and flying lower than other swan and duck species. To feed, Trumpeter Swans skim vegetation from the surface, dip their long necks underwater to forage, and tip like dabbling ducks with the rear half of their body in the air as they scour for algae, leaves, stems and roots of pondweeds and other plants. They also pump their large, webbed feet up and down to create water currents that free roots from surrounding mud. Sometimes ducks join feeding swans to glean vegetation and feed on insects they disturb. On land, Trumpeter Swans dig into the soil to find tubers, and nibble or scoop up grain from the ground. The swans spend significant time preening, rubbing their bills in the oil-secreting uropygial gland near the base of the tail, then distributing the oil over the feathers to waterproof them. Swans form long-lasting pairs and may identify a nesting site when less than 2 years old, but often wait several more years to breed. Pairs stay together throughout the year and often migrate and winter in family groups and with other waterfowl, including Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, and Northern Pintails.
Despite being driven nearly to extinction in the early 20th century, Trumpeter Swans have rebounded and their numbers are increasing. Widespread hunting for meat, skins and feathers from the 1600s–1800s had reduced this once widespread species to 69 known individuals by 1935, although isolated pockets of the birds also survived in Canada and Alaska. Hunting them is now illegal throughout the U.S. Between 2000 and 2005 a continentwide survey found that Trumpeter Swan numbers had more than tripled, from 11,156 to 34,803. Although Trumpeter Swans have been dubbed “a classic conservation success” and numbers continue to increase, threats such as lead poisoning, habitat loss, power lines, and occasional shooting continue to affect the population. The swans are also extremely sensitive to human disturbance at their breeding sites and will abandon nests and cygnets if disturbed. Ongoing conservation efforts include a set of federal management plans for the three major populations: the Interior, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Coast birds, along with several state plans. Managers are working to improve breeding and wintering habitat, limit human disturbance, and decrease lead pollution.
- Mitchell, C. D., and M. W. Eichholz. 2010. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 105 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Matteson, S., S. Craven and D. Compton. 1995. The Trumpeter Swan. University of Wisconsin Extension, Publication G3647.
- Sibley, D.A. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity Records of North American Birds.
- Weller, M. W. 2001. Ducks, Geese, and Swans. In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, C. Elphic, J. B. Dunning, Jr., and D. A. Sibley (eds.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Resident to medium-distance migrant. Birds breeding in coastal Alaska and Canada move to ice-free waters in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Breeders from the Alaskan and Canadian interior winter in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Scattered populations in the Intermountain West may not migrate at all.
Find This Bird
Look for these enormous swans on relatively shallow water or in agricultural fields. They’ll be straighter-necked than Mute Swans (and more likely to be in wild habitats rather than city ponds); and they’ll be considerably larger than the similar Tundra Swan. Trumpeter Swans have expanded their range in recent years as they continue their comeback from near-extinction. In fact, the species now nests across a broad swath of the Midwest/Great Lakes and in scattered portions of the Northern Rockies—meaning that in summer you’re more likely to find this species than the much more numerous Tundra Swan. Look for them in shallow ponds, lakes, rivers, and marshes. During migration and winter, you may also find Trumpeter Swans feeding in harvested agricultural fields.