What is a Trumpeter Swan?

Angie Bates
Angie Bates

The trumpeter swan is a type of long-necked waterfowl native to North America. Hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, this bird is now fairly common, though many states in the US are still reintroducing the trumpeter swan to their regions. Like its name suggests this swan has a trumpeting horn-like call. The scientific name for the trumpeter swan is Cygnus buccinator.

North America's largest waterbird, the trumpeter swan measures 4.5-5 feet in length (1.5 m) and weighs 17-30.5 pounds (7.7-14 kg), with a wingspan up to 6.6 feet (2 m). It is almost completely white, having only a black beak and head. In the wild, these swans may live up to 24 years but can live as long as 32 in captivity.

In the past, trumpeter swans were found mostly around bodies of fresh water: marshes, lakes, rivers, and ponds. More recently, they inhabit coastal bays in salt water areas with frequency as well. They have minimal habitat requirements, needing only an area of open water, a food source, and a place to build nests.

These swans feed both in water and on land. When in water, they dunk their heads under the surface, using their long necks to reach aquatic plants. In addition to plants, they eat grass and grain. Young trumpeter swans eat mostly invertebrates and insects.

Trumpeter swans mate for life, but do occasionally change mates. They usually select mates when they are two to four years old, but do not build nests or reproduce until reaching four to seven years. Nests, lined with down and feathers, are made on the ground out of grasses and plants and are usually placed on land surrounded by water, such as a small island. Females do most of the work, but nest making is a joint effort.

Females lay one to nine eggs, incubating them for 32-37 days. Males occasionally help to incubate, but more often guard the nest. Once hatched, the downy young are able to swim and feed themselves after just 24 hours, but require their parents assistance to lead them to feeding areas. Three or four months after hatching, the young, now grayish white, can fly.

Southern populations of trumpeter swans are nonmigratory, but northern populations do migrate south in late fall. They return to begin nesting in early spring, usually while waters are still icy. The greatest concentration of these swans live in Washington state and Canada.

In the past, trumpeter swans were valued for their feathers, which were used for making high-quality quills. Two hundred years of extensive hunting had reduced the trumpeter swan species to a mere 100 in the US by 1930. Conservation efforts, however, have allowed the species to increase its number and as of 2010, there were approximately 15,000 in the United States.

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