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Tundra Swan


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.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
47.2–57.9 in
120–147 cm
66.1 in
168 cm
134–370.4 oz
3800–10500 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Snow Goose; smaller than a Mute Swan or Trumpeter Swan.
Other Names
  • Whistling Swan (English)
  • Cygne siffleur (French)
  • Cisne chiflador (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Lewis and Clark provided the first written description of the Tundra Swan during their expedition to the West, where the birds’ whistle-like calls prompted Meriwether Lewis to dub them “whistling swans.”
  • The whistling swan, the American race of the Tundra Swan, currently is considered the same species as the Eurasian race, the Bewick's swan. They were considered separate species in the past, distinguished by the large yellow patches on the face of the Bewick's swan.
  • The Tundra Swan stays in flocks except when on a breeding territory. Although most swans spread out to breed, a large proportion of the population on the breeding grounds still can be found in flocks. These swans are not breeding, and may be young birds that have not yet bred, adult pairs whose breeding attempts failed, or adults that bred in the past but for some reason do not in that year.
  • During the breeding season the Tundra Swan sleeps almost entirely on land, but in the winter it sleeps more often on water.
  • Tundra Swans breed in the remote arctic of North America. Parents defend their nests and young against a host of predators including foxes, weasels, wolves, and bears, as well as birds such as Glaucous Gulls, Common Ravens, Parasitic Jaegers, Pomarine Jaegers, and Golden Eagles. If the parents are present, they are able to defend the nest and nestlings from these threats. Wolves, people, and bears, however, are too big to fight, and most incubating swans leave their nests while these large predators are far away. By leaving quickly when large predators approach, the parents may make the nest harder to find.
  • Tundra Swans wintering in Chesapeake Bay feed almost exclusively on clams that they dislodge from the mud. But it can be challenging to enjoy a peaceful meal: often the swan has to fend off a Ring-billed, Herring, or Greater Black-backed gull that swoops in to grab a clam from the swan’s bill—a successful tactic in about half of these “kleptoparasitic” encounters.
  • Swans have long been associated with ideals of romance. Added to their elegant outlines and all-white plumage is their tendency to form permanent pair bonds by the time they’re 2–3 years old. Once a pair forms, Tundra Swans feed and roost together year-round.
  • Based on banding records, the oldest known Tundra Swan was a 23 year, 7 month old female banded in the Northwest Territories and recovered in North Carolina.



Tundra Swans breed on lakes, ponds and pools situated along river deltas in Alaska and Canada, with some birds nesting at inland sites below treeline. Breeding birds prefer areas with extensive wetlands and lakes with long shorelines that support pondweed. In fall, flocks gather (or “stage”) along the brackish shorelines of river deltas before moving south, stopping along the way at wetlands in boreal forests. Wintering flocks gather on estuaries, lakes, bays, ponds and rivers, often situated close to agricultural fields where the birds feed.



Tundra Swans eat mainly plant matter, although they also eat mollusks and arthropods. Plant foods include tubers, stems, and leaves of aquatic vegetation such as Carex sedges, saltmarsh starwort, alkali grass, pondweed, and Nostoc algae. During migration and on the wintering grounds (especially in the East) look for Tundra Swans in fields gleaning corn, soybeans, and rice left after the harvest, and feeding on growing winter crops such as winter wheat, rye and barley. In the Chesapeake Bay Tundra Swans use their bills and feet to root up clams from the muddy bottom. When feeding on the water Tundra Swans “tip up” like dabbling ducks to reach submerged vegetation. On their arctic breeding grounds they also graze on upland or wet-meadow tundra.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.5–4.6 in
9–11.6 cm
Egg Width
2.3–2.9 in
5.9–7.4 cm
Incubation Period
31–32 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Creamy white, often stained tan by nest material.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes open, chick covered in light gray down with light pink legs and toes; able to walk several hours after down dries. Is able to fly at 65 days after hatching.
Nest Description

Both members of the pair build the nest, a mound of vegetation including grasses, sedges, other tundra plants, lichens, and moss. The birds pull material from within about 10 feet of the nest site in a ritualized set of behaviors called “forward building” and “side building.” The female uses her feet and body to scrape a cup-shaped bowl into the mound, although both pair members deepen the bowl with their bill. Built in 4–9 days before egg laying starts, the nest reaches 8 inches in height, 10–20 inches across at the base, with a cup measuring 7.5–15 inches wide and 4–8 inches deep. The pair continues to work on the nest during egg laying and incubation, and pairs often reuse the nest in subsequent seasons.

Nest Placement


Nests are typically placed near a large body of water, either on an island or in upland or wet meadow tundra. Tundra Swans often place the nest on the low, elevated ridges between small ponds (known as polygon ponds) that are created by repeated thawing and freezing of arctic soil.



Tundra Swans can take off easily from land or water and fly with their necks extended straight out and their black legs trailing behind. Tundra Swans form life-long pairs that remain together year round. Pairs defend a breeding territory of open water and tundra up to a half-acre in size and chase off other swans, geese and Long-tailed Ducks. Such encounters can get physical, with the swans tackling and trampling an intruder or grabbing the tail during an aerial defense. When they’re not breeding Tundra Swans form large, gregarious flocks that travel, forage and roost together. Wintering birds foraging for clams in Chesapeake Bay often go head to head with Ring-billed, Herring, and Greater Black-Backed Gulls that swoop in to steal their prey.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Tundra Swans are North America’s most numerous swan species. Their numbers fluctuate annually, particularly in the western breeding population, but have been growing on average in recent decades. Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate about 100,000 Tundra Swans in the eastern population and between about 60,000 and 110,000 in the western population. There is an annual, regulated hunting season for Tundra Swans. Other threats to Tundra Swans include lead poisoning by spent shot, fishing sinkers, and mine wastes deposited in sediments. Birds are also killed by diseases, including avian cholera, and a nematode (Sarconema eurycerca) may have caused Tundra Swan deaths in the Chesapeake Bay. Oil and gas drilling in arctic breeding habitats and loss of wetlands at migratory stopover sites, particularly in the Midwest’s prairie pothole region, are all potential threats to Tundra Swans.


  • Limpert, R. J., and S. L. Earnst. 1994. Tundra Swan (Cygnus buccinator). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 089 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
  • Johnsgard, Paul A. 2003. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Lewis and Clark on the Great Plains, Chapter 1. University of Nebraska Press, Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln and London.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Raftovich, R.V., S.C. Chandler, and K.A. Wilkins. 2015. Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD.
  • Sibley, D.A. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2014. Waterfowl Population Status, 2014 [PDF]. U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington 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.

Range Map Help

Tundra Swan Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Medium-distance migrant. Migrates from Arctic breeding grounds in mid-September. Birds breeding in western Alaska, move to estuaries from Vancouver Island to northern California and inland sites from southern Idaho to the southern Colorado River. Those breeding in eastern Alaska (east of Point Hope) winter in the eastern Great Lakes and all along the East Coast, with the majority wintering in the coastal mid-Atlantic.

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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