By: Marlene Affeld
Majestic and regal, the snow-white Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) is a spectacular sight. Trumpeter Swans belong to the avian order Anseri-formes, family Anatida, along with ducks and geese. Flaunting a wingspan of over seven feet and a height of four feet, the Trumpeter Swan is the largest native waterfowl species not only in Montana but in all of North America. With an average body weight of 25-30 pounds and large males weighing over 35 pounds, the Trumpeter Swan is the heaviest bird in North America and is considered one of the heaviest flying birds in the world.
Prior to the white man's exploitation of the American West, trumpeters were abundant. Native Indian tribes feasted on both the eggs and meat and utilized the skin and feathers for dance costumes and regalia. Tribal stories tell us that when these giant birds took flight it was as if “the lake lifted to the heavens in a swirling white cloud”.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition saw few swans in their journey across Montana and did not attempt to name those they did encounter. Writing from near the present-day location of Townsend, Lewis in his journal entry on July, 21, 1805, described what were surely Trumpeters; “we saw three swans this morning, which like the geese have not yet recovered the feathers of the wing and could not fly . . . we killed two of them. . .they had no young ones with them therefore presume they do not breed in this country. . .these are the first we have seen on the river for a great distance”.
Aptly named for its distinctive resonant and sonorous trumpeting call, this magnificent species almost became extinct in the 19th Century when thousands of the birds were killed and their skins and feathers shipped to England to satisfy the British Empire’s passion for fashion. The commercial swan skin trade reduced the species to near extinction. Fortunately for both us and the Trumpeter Swan, conservation efforts that began in the 20th century are paying off and the numbers and distribution of this noble bird are slowly expanding.
Trumpeter Swans can now be found in Lewis and Clark, Beaverhead, Gallatin and Madison counties of Montana, with the largest population of birds occurring in the Centennial Valley and around the Red Rock Lakes area. A small number of reintroduced swans are also flourishing in the Paradise Valley, the Blackfoot Valley and on the Flathead Indian Reservation. First released in the Paradise Valley in 1989, trumpeters are frequently seen along the river.
Over the winter, Montana’s Trumpeter Swans are joined by swans that migrate southward from Canada. Trumpeter Swan eggs are laid in May and hatch in June. Both the males, which are called “cobs” and the females that are referred to as “pens, care for the eggs and the hatchlings, or “cygnets”. Trumpeter Swans are monogamous and normally form bonds when they are two to three years old and first nest when they are four to five years old. Pairs remain together year-round and honor their bond for life.
Trumpeter Swan cygnets are fast growers and develop rapidly. They are fully feathered in nine to ten weeks, but do not fly until fourteen to seventeen weeks. Swan cygnets remain under their parents protective care throughout their first winter. Cygnets separate from their parents in the spring but remain close to their siblings into the third year. Trumpeter Swan family bonds are strong and sub-adult siblings may rejoin their parents after the parents' nesting season or during subsequent winters.
The majority of Montana’s Trumpeter Swan population will ride out the winter here, however; others will migrate a short distance and winter in southeastern Idaho or western Wyoming. Perhaps the trumpeters are seeking a change of scenery or diet as it is unlikely to be much warmer in these close-by locales.
Trumpeters have unique broad flat bills with fine toothed notches along the edges. Their bill allows them to strain the water for aquatic plants and insects as they feed. The bird’s elegant long neck and sturdy feet allow them to uproot plants in water several feet deep.
Trumpeter swans can be found in wetland areas among aquatic and emerging vegetation. In Montana trumpeters commonly build their nests in bulrushes, cattails and reeds along the water bank. Other than man, trumpeters have few natural predators. Coyotes, wolves and cougars have been known to steal new hatchlings.
Trumpeter Swans have lived up to 35 years in captivity, however; their lifespan in the wild is normally limited to 12 to 15 years.
Swan watching in Montana is a delightful experience, however; observers are cautioned not to disturb the swans or flush them away from much needed feeding grounds and resting sites. If a Trumpeter Swan starts to vocalize or “head-bob”, it is best to carefully withdraw before the swans are forced to fly. It is also very important to control dogs at swan sites. If trumpeters lose their sense of security and the tranquility is destroyed at a particular site, they may not return even if food supplies are limited elsewhere.