Birdwatching: Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter swans, once on the brink of extinction, have made a remarkable comeback.
By Budd Titlow
January 29, 2014
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Majestic and graceful, Trumpeter swans are the largest species of waterfowl in the world.
Photo courtesy Lyons Press
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Taken from the birding adventures of professional wildlife biologist and photographer Budd Titlow, Bird Brains (Lyons Press, 2013) looks at the antics, behaviors, and funny idiosyncrasies of wild birds. Each entry is another tale pulled from hours of birdwatching, where the personality of the various species of birds are on full display. The passage, excerpted from Section 4, "Rocky Mountain Ramblings," highlights the trumpeter swan, a majestic waterfowl that is back from the brink of extinction.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Bird Brains.

Trumpeter Swans — Saved by Yellowstone

Most Americans know that Yellowstone National Park is famous for its magnificent wildlife populations, including American bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and grizzly bears. But very few of us are aware that our first national park provided the critical habitat that saved North America’s largest species of waterfowl — the trumpeter swan.

Here’s how it happened. Before European settlement, trumpeter swans were widespread across much of North America. Then, beginning in the 1700s, these swans were widely hunted for their commercial value while much of their wetland habitat was destroyed for development. By 1900, trumpeter swans were nearly extinct; only a small group of these birds survived in the wilderness of the Yellowstone region.

In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act officially protected trumpeter swans outside of Yellowstone National Park. Then Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge — to the west of Yellowstone — was established in 1935 to further protect the remaining swans and their nesting areas. From 1935 to 1952, the trumpeter swans were fed grain during the winter at Red Rocks Lake NWR. Through the years, as the population of trumpeter swans continued to recover, the refuge became an important source of trumpeter swans for reintroduction into other parts of the United States. Today, approximately twenty thousand trumpeter swans live in North America.

During my twenty years of working in and traveling to Yellowstone, one of my most thrilling wildlife experiences was the early evening that I saw trumpeter swans descend into their marshy floodplain roosts beside the Firehole River.

The sun had just settled behind the towering mountain peaks when I rounded a curve and came upon about fifty of the graceful swans drifting lazily down— like enormous snowflakes — through shafts of golden sunset light. What made this scene really special was the large size of these pure-white birds. With males averaging twenty-six pounds, the trumpeter swan is the heaviest bird native to North America and one of the heaviest on earth. Their black bills and habit of swimming with their necks held straight up sets them apart from the nonnative mute swans that have become such a persistent nuisance in so many other places in the United States.

Trumpeter swans are, for the most part, vegetarians. They often feed by tipping up and gobbling aquatic vegetation off the bottom of their marshland habitats. They nest on small islands, laying their eggs in huge, dense mats of aquatic vegetation. They are also very family-oriented since they mate for life and both parents help care for the young cygnets.

Because of the diligent conservation efforts that occurred in the Yellowstone wilderness almost one hundred years ago, the chances are now quite good that visitors to Yellowstone National Park will see a flock of trumpeter swans landing and swimming serenely at sunset in a roadside marsh.

Want to know more about birdwatching? Check out Budd Titlow’s further Birding Adventures.


Excerpted with permission from Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, by Budd Titlow, published by Lyons Press © 2012. Buy this book from our store: Bird Brains.


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