Birdwatching: Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter swans, once on the brink of extinction, have made a remarkable comeback.

| January 29, 2014

  • Majestic and graceful, Trumpeter swans are the largest species of waterfowl in the world.
    Photo courtesy Lyons Press
  • “Bird Brains” is Budd Titlow’s fascinating and humorous look at the behaviors and antics of a variety of bird species.
    Cover courtesy Lyons Press

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.

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