Swans in Wisconsin
Three swan species can be found in Wisconsin -- trumpeter, tundra and the non-native mute swan. Trumpeter and tundra swans are migratory species whereas mute swans are an introduced non-native species that tend to remain year-round. All have white plumage as adults and appear similar from a distance. There are, however, several physical characteristics by which these three species can be distinguished.
Trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator): The trumpeter swan is a migratory bird that nests in Wisconsin. Adults are all white, have a black bill with a narrow, salmon-red stripe along the base of the lower bill, the bill strip is often not visible in the field, however. Trumpeter swans were extirpated from Wisconsin in the late 1880s but were re-introduced in 1989 with so much success that the Trumpeter swan was removed from the Wisconsin endangered species list in 2009.
Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus): The tundra swan is the other large native white swan in North America and is often confused with the less common trumpeter. The tundra is slightly smaller than the trumpeter however both species are white with a black bill. A notable difference between the two is the distinct yellow spot in front of the eye found on about 80% of tundra swans. The best way to distinguish the two species is by their calls. The trumpeter call sounds deep and trumpet-like while the tundra swan has a high-pitched, quavering call.
Mute swan (Cyguns olor): Mute swans are a non-native species to North America and were introduced by European immigrants. Mute swans are an undesired species, however, they are not hunted but instead managed to control numbers from increasing. Close to a trumpeter in size, the mute swan is easily distinguished from other swans by its orange bill and prominent black fleshy knob extending from the base of the bill to the forehead.
The Trumpeter Swan is the largest waterfowl species native to North America. Most Trumpeters weigh 21-30 pounds, although large males may exceed 35 pounds. The male is called a cob, and the female is called a pen. With a wingspan of over 7 feet, these snow-white birds are truly spectacular.
- Wingspan: 7+ feet
- Height: 4 feet high
- Weight: 21-30 pounds/average
Trumpeters have broad, flat bills with fine tooth-like serrations along the edges that strain water when the birds eat aquatic vegetation. Their long necks allow them to uproot plants in 4 feet of water.
Trumpeters are often confused with the far more common Tundra Swan (formerly Whistling Swan, Cygnus columbianus), the only other native swan that occurs regularly in North America. Tundra Swans can be seen in the upper Midwest during spring and fall migration and are legally hunted in North Carolina, Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Both species are white with a black bill.
The Tundra Swan has a 6 to 7-foot wingspan, weighs 13-20 pounds, and stands about 3 feet tall. Juvenile Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, also referred to as cygnets or swans in their first year, are both grayish but Tundra cygnets are more silver-gray than the darker Trumpeter cygnets which are sooty gray in the head and neck areas. Juveniles do not become all-white until about a year old. In their first summer, the cygnets have pink bills with black tips that turn all-black during the first winter.
One notable difference between these two species is the head and bill profile. The Tundra's bill is slightly dish-shaped or concave and is smaller in proportion to its smooth rounded head. The bill of the Trumpeter appears heavy and somewhat wedge-shaped in proportion to its large angular head, similar to the head profile of a canvasback duck.
Other field characteristics of the Tundra Swan include a distinct yellow spot in front of the eye on about 80% of the birds. In contrast, the Trumpeter Swan has a red border or stripe, like lipstick, on the edge of its lower mandible. This red border, however, may sometimes appear on a Tundra Swan's bill, and some Trumpeters may have a yellow mark in front of the eye.
The best way to distinguish the two species is by their calls. Observers have described the Trumpeter's call as resonant, deep and loud, sonorous, and trumpet-like. Hence the bird's name: Trumpeter Swan. The Tundra Swan has a high-pitched, quavering call resembling that of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) or Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens). From a distance, the calls of a flock of Tundra Swans may be likened to the sound of a pack of baying hounds or distant 'whoops' and 'hollers.'
A third swan species, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), is not native to the Midwest. Close to a Trumpeter in size, the Mute Swan is easily distinguished from other swans by its orange bill and prominent black fleshy knob extending from the base of the bill to the forehead.
Trumpeter Swans, although protected from hunting throughout their range, are also sometimes mistaken for Snow Geese, which can be hunted. The Snow Goose, however, is significantly smaller, with a wingspan of only about 3 feet and with black wingtips (all ages).
The state population now exceeds 5,000, with most nesting birds concentrated in four areas: in northwestern counties, especially in Burnett and Polk; in several northern counties in a line from Oconto County to Douglas County, in the central sand counties, especially Wood and Juneau; and the southwestern counties of Crawford and Grant.
Most Trumpeter Swans don't nest until they are three to six years old, although some may nest for the first time at age two years. Trumpeters mate for life and may live for 20 to 30 years. If one member of a pair dies, the survivor finds another mate and returns to the former nesting territory. As in other waterfowl species, remating and returning to a former nesting territory is more likely if the returning member of a pair was previously successful at raising young on that territory.
Swans usually form pair bonds in winter and may select a nesting area near where the pen hatched. However, a newly formed pair usually does not build a nest during their first year together. If a pair spends at least two summers at the same nesting location, it will form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site.
Trumpeters typically arrive on their breeding grounds soon after ice melt in early spring. Large, isolated, shallow wetlands with a diverse mix of emergent vegetation and open water offer ideal habitat that supports a rich variety of aquatic plants from which tubers and stems are used for food. Sago pondweed and water milfoil are preferred by Trumpeters, along with such emergent plants as arrowhead, burred, bulrush, sedges (Carex spp.), wild rice, other pondweeds. Nesting territories range from 6 to 150 acres in size. For the first few weeks after arrival, the pair engages in courtship behavior, bobbing their heads and quivering their wings while facing each other.
Trumpeters build their nests on top of muskrat or beaver lodges, or they pile sedges and cattail tubers into a mound. Usually, water surrounds the nest making it difficult for a mammalian predator to surprise the pair. Nest building typically begins in mid-April and may take up to two weeks with some nests reaching a diameter of 6 feet or more. The same nest structure may be used from one year to the next.
Egg laying begins in late April to June. One cream-colored egg is laid every other day until a clutch of five (typical) to nine eggs is complete. Once all eggs have been laid, the pen incubates the eggs and the cob protects the nest against all intruders. Incubation typically lasts about 32-34 days with the pen occasionally leaving the next to feed, bathe and preen. When she leaves, she covers the eggs with nest material and the cob will stand guard on or near the nest to deter predators. Intruding swans or predators are vigorously chased away. The adults perform a "triumph display" after intruders are repelled which consists of facing one another while quivering their wings and trumpeting loudly.
Cygnets hatch around June weighing about 7 ounces. After a day or two, they take to the water to feed on insects and other aquatic invertebrates. By the time they are four to six weeks old, they are feeding on aquatic vegetation, using their bills to uproot plants as their parents do. The cygnets grow rapidly and are fully feathered by nine to ten weeks though they are unable to fly until about 14-15 weeks of age. At 15 weeks the cygnets weigh about 20 pounds.
The first flights in late August or early September are typically short. Daily practice prepares the cygnets to migrate with their parents just before freeze-up to wintering areas where ice-free streams and ponds allow subadults and unmated adults to mingle. Family groups and mated pairs keep to themselves. Parents and their cygnets return year after year to the same winter feeding sites. The quality and quantity of winter foods influence productivity during the next breeding season.
Cygnets will remain with their parents during winter and migrate north with them. Then the parents drive them away. By this time the cygnets are about one year old. They remain together in sibling groups until about two years of age when they, too, begin to seek mates and a new life in a remote marsh.
Reporting Observations of Trumpeter Swans
Many Trumpeter Swans in Wisconsin are marked with collars and leg bands. If you observe or receive a report of a marked swan, or a report of a Trumpeter with no collar or band, please report it electronically via the DNR's non-game observation report or to Wisconsin eBird. Reports of probable nesting swans or swans with cygnets should be forwarded to the NHC avian ecologist and local wildlife biologist. During the fall and winter months, local observers and/or southern states may call/email to report observations of marked Wisconsin Trumpeter Swans. Submit these observations to either of the websites mentioned above and email the NHC avian ecologist and local wildlife biologist with a record of the observation(s).
What to do about injured or sick Trumpeter Swans
If you receive a report on or observe a sick or injured swan, gather as much information as you can on the swan's location, condition of the swan, and the name and phone number of the person reporting the swan observation. If there is any indication that the swan was shot or purposely injured, call your local DNR Conservation Warden and/or the DNR tip line: 1-800-TIP-WDNR (1-800-847-9367). U.S. Cellular customers can call cellular #367.
For a statewide list of wildlife rehabilitators, see the DNR's wildlife rehabilitation directory.
Management that sustains hemi-marshes -- typical Trumpeter Swan nesting habitat -- and large wetland complexes that include beaver ponds (important swan habitat), will promote conditions favorable to maintaining Trumpeter Swan breeding populations. Accordingly, maintaining water levels in appropriate habitats during May-August is important.
Tundra swans are separated into two populations, an eastern and a western. The eastern population migrates from their arctic breeding grounds through the Great Lakes and Wisconsin on their way to the east coast.
- Wingspan: 6-7 feet long
- Height: 3 feet high
- Weight: 13-20 pounds/average
The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) is a large-bodied arctic nesting waterfowl species that weighs 13 to 20 pounds on average and stands approximately 3 feet tall. Tundra swans have all-white plumage with a black bill and often a yellow marking in front of the eye which is used to help differentiate them from trumpeter swans. Both males and females are identical in appearance. However, the male is often larger in size. A tundra swan's call is high-pitched and is compared to that of a snow goose whereas a trumpeter swan's call is a lower more resonant call, likened to the sound of a trumpet.
Feeding and life history
Tundra swans feed primarily on seeds, stems and tubers of aquatic vegetation in shallow fresh or brackish waters; however, they also feed on agricultural waste grain and crops in migration and on wintering grounds. Tundra swans nest in northern arctic habitats preferring to nest on points, islands and hummocks found near lakes, ponds or marshes. The average clutch size for adult tundra swans is two to five eggs with hatching in early July.
There are two distinct populations of tundra swans in North America as defined by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an eastern and western population. Both populations breed in the northern Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska. The eastern population migrates through Wisconsin. They migrate south from the Canadian Arctic and Alaska through central Canada and the northern United States in a general south-southeast direction, moving through the Great Lakes and finally wintering in North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.
The eastern population of tundra swans exceeds 100,000 as measured by the mid-winter waterfowl survey and has recently been surveyed in Wisconsin on the Mississippi River with peak fall counts of 40,000, 23,000 and 70,000 in the last three years. The mid-winter estimates show a stable population over the last 10 years. Viewing the significant concentrations in the Upper Mississippi River has become an increasingly popular fall recreational activity. The major concentrations of tundra swans roost in areas of the national wildlife refuge which are closed to hunting and have reduced boat traffic.
The eastern population (EP) of tundra swans is managed under a cooperative management plan first developed in 1982. The management plan identifies goals, management actions, methods to monitor the populations and future research needs. The development of the management plan and its implementation is a cooperative effort among the state, provincial and federal wildlife agencies in Canada and the United States. The primary management goal is "to maintain EP tundra swans at a population level that will provide optimum resource benefits for society consistent with habitat availability and international treaties."
The specific population objective is to maintain at least 80,000 EP tundra swans based on a three-year average population index from the mid-winter survey conducted across the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. This population objective establishes the level necessary to satisfy public demand for the enjoyment and use of this resource, reduction in crop depredation issues, the desire to maintain distributions of EP swans throughout their range and to support both subsistence and sport harvest.
The plan includes a harvest management strategy that provides guidelines for how the harvest of tundra swans will be managed across their range. Tundra swans are not a hunted species in Wisconsin, however, EP tundra swans have been hunted since 1983 and are currently hunted in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina and Virginia. There are 9,600 harvest permits shared between the five states that currently hunt them and the average annual harvest reported in the plan is about 3,300 swans. Each state is allocated a portion of the 9,600 permits and then these permits are distributed via a lottery system to hunters within that state.
The Eastern Population Tundra Swan Management Plan calls for a state with a hunting season to "avoid harvest of trumpeter swans by temporal and/or spatial considerations when possible," with the goal to avoid accidental harvest of trumpeters. "However, EP tundra swan seasons should not be precluded by the possibility of an occasional trumpeter swan being shot. This policy is consistent with the Interior Population Trumpeter Swan Management Plan, Western Population Tundra Swan Management Plan, Rocky Mountain Trumpeter Swan Management Plan and has been endorsed by The Trumpeter Swan Society, the Central Flyway Council and the Pacific Flyway Council."
Rule change process
There have been public discussions about a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin. To facilitate this discussion, we have outlined below the process necessary for the establishment of a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin, however, the DNR has taken no position on whether or not this process should be initiated. According to the current management plan for the EP tundra swans, status of trumpeter swans and state/federal laws; several steps would need to be taken to implement a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin.
- The EP tundra management plan requires a state seeking to hunt tundra swans to have a quota-based hunting season with a limited number of special permits issued to hunters.
- According to Wisconsin state law, a quota-based hunt as described in the EP tundra swan plan would have to first be established by the state legislature and authorize the Department of Natural Resources to develop a state tundra swan hunting season.
- Then the DNR would need to develop a draft hunt plan specifying season timing, length, zones, permit system and methods to reduce the chance of a hunter shooting a trumpeter swan. This draft season would have to be submitted through the flyway council system (regional groups of state/provincial agencies) for review and approval. As part of this process, Wisconsin would negotiate a share of the 9,600 tundra swan hunting permits currently being used by the five existing hunt states. If Wisconsin became a swan hunting state, the number of tundra swan hunt permits for the entire EP would not increase but be redistributed among the hunt states.
- As a part of the flyway process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would also review the plan and provide comments.
- The department would then develop a specific tundra swan hunting season proposal that would move through the state administrative rule process and receive public input. The proposal may then be modified based on public input and further state review but cannot be more liberal than the flyway-approved hunting plan.
Following the public input process, a tundra swan hunting season would be recommended by staff to the Secretary's office and the Natural Resources Board for review and approval. Following state approval, a final hunting season proposal would be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for final approval. The entire process listed above would take three to five years to complete.
Mute swans are a feral species of swan that were introduced by European immigrants and now have large populations on the east coast and in the Great Lakes. They are aggressive toward both people and other wildlife and outcompete native species for resources.
- Wingspan: 7-8 feet long
- Height: 4 feet high
- Weight: 25-30 pounds/average
The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is a species of swan that is non-native to North America. This swan is native to Eurasia and was introduced into North America in the late 1800s by European immigrants seeking to add a familiar wildlife species to their gardens and ponds. This is the swan that typically is featured in artwork and folklore. As with many introduced species, the mute swan has established feral populations that continue to expand westward across North America competing with native wildlife and negatively impacting aquatic vegetation. The mute swan is not federally protected and is considered an invasive species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mute swans stand between 4.5 and 5.5 feet tall and weigh 25-30 pounds. Both sexes have all-white plumage and a distinctive orange bill with a black nob which is the primary identifying characteristic that helps to separate this species from the two native swan species which have an all-black bill. Mute swans get their name because they are less vocal compared to trumpeter and tundra swans. Mute Swans typically hold their necks in an S-curve with the bill pointed downward.
Mute Swan cygnets have two distinct color phases: the royal phase (brownish) or the Polish phase (white). Unlike Trumpeter and Tundra Swan cygnets, the Mute cygnet has either a dark bill (royal phase) or pinkish bill (Polish phase) during its first summer; the bill turns orange during the first year.
Feeding and life history
Mute swans primarily forage on submerged aquatic vegetation and may forage up to depths of 4 feet. Mute swans often uproot the entire plant and disturb more vegetation than they can consume causing damage to aquatic habitats used by other species. Mute swans prefer to nest on a large mound of aquatic vegetation surrounded by grasses and rushes near ponds, lakes or wetlands. The average clutch size is six eggs but may range up to 11 and usually hatch in early June.
Mute swans were introduced in the Atlantic coast states but have established feral populations in all four flyways. In the Mississippi Flyway at least 9 of 17 states or provinces have feral mutes. The majority of mute swans in the Mississippi Flyway occur in Michigan and Ontario. Mute swans continue to expand into Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Mute swans are relatively sedentary and their nesting territories small compared to native North American swans. They are non-migratory but will move regionally to molt or in winter. Feral breeding mute swans numbering in the dozens are located primarily in southeast Wisconsin and adjacent to breeding pairs in northeast Illinois.
In 1997 an estimated 18,000 mute swans were present in North America with most being in the Atlantic Flyway. Since then the population has increased in distribution but growth in some areas is being controlled via active management efforts. Mid-winter inventories in the Mississippi Flyway indicate an average annual increase of 10% during 1991-2000. The mute swan population in Ontario has grown 16% per year during the last 25 years reaching more than 3,000 in 2011. Michigan's spring breeding waterfowl surveys have shown a 9% to 10% annual increase of mute swans since 1949, to more than 15,000 in 2011. Larger numbers of mute swans in the 100s are seasonally observed in northeast Wisconsin and appear to be movements of birds from nearby Michigan waters.
As a non-native invasive species, management activities revolve primarily around documenting negative impacts and monitoring and reducing the population with active control efforts. Mute swans can alter plant communities and compete with native wildlife for food and breeding areas. They aggressively defend their nesting territories against other wildlife such as native swans, loons, Canada geese, ducks and other white water-birds. They sometimes kill other birds and their young. People working or recreating on waterways have been attacked by mute swans, sometimes resulting in personal injury and death.
Control efforts by state and provincial agencies vary by jurisdiction and have changed over time. They involve oiling eggs to prevent hatching, removing or destroying nests and sometimes direct removal of adult birds. In eastern states where the mute swan populations are higher, control efforts have been more extensive. Maryland has an active mute swan control program according to a state management plan and New York State recently completed a management plan as well. Control programs are sometimes controversial because of the aesthetic value some people place on this non-native species. In Wisconsin, the United States Department of Agriculture - APHIS - Wildlife Services manages mute swan control under a federal grant.
Swan comparison chart
|Trumpeter swan||Tundra swan||Mute swan|
|Origin||Native to the northern U.S.||Native to the U.S.||Not native to the U.S.|
|Population||10,000 in Great Lakes Region (2,000 in WI)||Population exceeds 100,000||Several hundred in WI|
|Status||Special concern species||Protected species||Invasive species|
|Wingspan||7-8 feet||6-7 feet||7-8 feet|
|Weight||21-30 pounds||13-20 pounds||25-30 pounds|
|Height||4 feet||3 feet||4 feet|
|Unique trait||Often has a red border on lower mandible. Eye indistinct from bill.||Often has a yellow spot in front of eye. Eye distinct from bill.||Distinct black knob.|
|Bill||Broad, flat black bill with fine tooth-like serrations along the edges.||Black||Orange|
|Profile/posture||Straight, sloping profile with bill is heavy and somewhat wedge-shaped in proportion to its large angular head. Holds neck erect.||Curving profile with bill is slightly dish-shaped or conclave and is small in proportion to its smooth rounded head. Holds neck erect.||Arches wings over their backs and position their necks in a graceful "S" curve with the bill pointed downward.|
|Voice||Resonant, deep and loud, sonorous and trumpetlike.||High pitched, often quavering OO-OO-OO, WHO-HO, or variations.||Often silent, but may hiss, grunt, or snort at low volume.|
|Status||Restored nesting population in WI. WI Status: Species of Special Concern||Arctic nesting species that migrate through WI. Federal Status: Hunted in 5 states.||Non-native introduced species. WI Status: Control population through management efforts.|