Published on February 17, 2013 by Amy
What is the largest flying bird in North America? Why the trumpeter swan, of course!! The trumpeter swan has a wing span of 7.5 – 8 feet (228 – 244 cm) and can weigh up to 35 pounds (13.6 kg.) These beautiful and graceful pure white birds have ebony black bills, legs, and feet. They are a sight that few of us get to see in our lifetimes. They earned their name due to their distinctive “trumpet-like” sound, caused by a loop in their larynx.
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Once found throughout North America, these swans now spend their winters in British Columbia, Washington, Northern Oregon, and a few other areas. Flying north in the springtime, trumpeter swans find lakes, rivers, and estuaries in Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, north British Columbia, Alberta, and southern Yukon. A pair of swans (males are called cobs and females are pens) will mate for life, and each spring, make a nest near a lake or in a marsh. The female trumpeter swan lays 5 – 8 eggs. These eggs incubate for around a month, producing a brood of 2 – 4. The juvenile swans, cygnets, follow their parents south in the fall.
The trumpeter swan is a modern-day success story. These majestic birds were hunted for their skins, feathers, and meat while others found their natural wet habitat changed. By the 1920′s, trumpeter swans were in serious trouble and were close to vanishing from the earth. Passage of laws protecting them as well as other programs have brought the trumpeter swan from the brink of extinction to around 16,000.
What are these programs responsible for the return of this swan? One very interesting program involves the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Eggs are removed from Alaskan nests, incubated and hatched in a zoo, then the cygnets were raised in one of two ways:
For two years the cygnets are raised on a pond with their flight feathers trimmed to keep them from flying. They are then relocated to northern Wisconsin. It is only normal for some of these swans to become used to humans. In fact, there is a true story of a trumpeter swan who loved peanut butter sandwiches!!
The other group are flown to northern Wisconsin soon after hatching. Separated into groups, they are cared for by university interns who sit inside floating blinds that had a floating adult swan decoy attached. The intern “mom” shows the cygnets where and what to eat, how to act as swans, and to fear predators without the swans learning to trust humans. Alas, no peanut butter sandwiches but more safety for the swans.
The Wisconsin programs now have 100 swans living in the wild. Other states and Canada are also reintroducing swans.
Other programs throughout North America help manage the adult trumpeter swans. Since swans eat grass as do cows, programs help farmers and wildlife agencies work together for the betterment of all. Ten adult swans will eat as much as one cow. For areas with growing swan populations, this can mean the farmers are having to feed the equivalent of 200 extra cows without receiving any monetary benefit. As well as eating the grass, hungry trumpeter swans can over graze fields, compact the soil and make huge depressions in muddy fields. All of this can add up to lose of precious feed for the farmers’ cows as well as a big expense. The swan management programs, such as the one in the Comox Valley of British Columbia, have developed workable solutions to these problems.
There are, of course, still problems for the trumpeter swans. Some hunters mistake these protected birds for snow geese. Other swans eat lead shot from the bottom of lakes. [Although lead shot illegal now, the lead shot from years past still remains at the bottom of lakes and in marshes where the swans eat.] But the trumpeter swan populations are increasing, due to programs like the ones above and public concern. If all goes well, our children and their children will thrill to the sight of one of these magnificent creatures or hear their call to their mates in the foggy and misty mornings.