Iconic Bird Enjoys Rebound at Chautauqua-Emiquon Complex

swans at Emiquon by Mitchell Baalman/USFWS

A trumpeter swan conservation story by volunteer writer and Master Naturalist Carla Rich Montez.

In the waters of municipal parks and gardens, the white mute swan is a quintessential site. Yet beyond this urban setting, a swan of greater stature – and significance – resides in the wild landscape close to home. 

The trumpeter swan, North America’s largest waterfowl, is a bird of superlatives. With a wingspan of nearly eight feet and a height of almost four feet, the trumpeter is not only an impressive form, it is also a conservation success story.

Visitors can find the trumpeter nearby in the wetlands and open waters of the Emiqon complex.  Consisting of the Chautauqua and Emiquon Refuges of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Emiquon Preserve of The Nature Conservancy, the Emiquon complex is an impressive network of vast open water and expansive wetlands. Because it offers the swans critical habitat, the complex now hosts a growing population of trumpeters.

swan flying by Kara Heil/USFWSTrumpeter swan taking off the water by Kara Heil/USFWS.

To appreciate the significance of the trumpeter’s presence at Emiquon, it’s important to review the swan’s perilous history. Once widely observed throughout much of the northern United States and Canada, trumpeter swans began to decline as the pioneers made their way west. Favored for its meat, the trumpeter was also desired for its beautiful white feathers and downy plumage. Eventually, unbridled hunting levied its toll, and trumpeter swan numbers plummeted. By the beginning of the 20th century, the trumpeter had practically disappeared. 

Then, in the 1960s, conservation efforts began. Scientists collected eggs from the plentiful trumpeter flocks of Alaska and Canada and raised the young. Reintroduction efforts followed in their former breeding range; numbers increased. Officials now believe the trumpeter is rebounding with current estimates indicating a Midwest population of about 63,000 swans.

Equally impressive is the comeback story of the trumpeter swan at the Emiquon complex. While only about a dozen trumpeters were observed at the complex a decade ago, peak numbers during the 2020 migration exceeded 3,000 birds. As habitat improvements continue to be made, the area may eventually become one of the best locations in the midwest to see these swans firsthand.

Swan preening by Courtney Celley/USFWSSwans preening in a wetland by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

Three types of swans can be seen at the Emiquon complex, and because they are all white, they are easily confused with one another. The trumpeter is the largest swan, at nearly 25-pounds, with its black eye patch connected to its black bill and its namesake trumpeting call. Somewhat smaller is the tundra, or whistling swan, with a black bill separated from the facial skin around the eye and a higher pitched bugling call. The smallest, the non-native mute swan, has a distinctive orange bill, curved slender neck and a hoarse snoring call. Recognized for its elegant profile, the mute is the familiar swan of many urban water features.  

Owing to the prime habitat of the Emiquon complex, you are likely to see trumpeter swans in nearly every season. In the spring, look for breeding pairs performing their courtship displays of synchronized head-bobbing, wing-flapping, and of course, their signature calling - a loud, brassy HONK. 

The mated pair will migrate to the upper midwest where they will nest and raise their young. As the fluffy gray chicks mature, they will stay with their parents to forage for vegetation, grow and learn to fly. When temperatures begin to drop by early fall, family groups will merge, and the flock will migrate south to warmer climes and open water.

When the trumpeters arrive at Emiquon in November, they will find the complex to be an ideal stopover. With its ice-free waters and abundant food supply, the complex will provide an optimal habitat for the winter. Come spring, the cycle will repeat itself as courtship rituals commence and mated pairs once again return to their breeding grounds in the upper midwest. 

Although the population is growing, trumpeter swans continue to face threats in their environment. Lead poisoning, habitat loss, accidental harvests and power line collisions impact their numbers. In response, conservationists have successfully campaigned for wetland improvements, removal of fatal lead from ammunition and fishing tackle, relocation of power lines away from wetlands and outdoor education programs to reduce accidental shooting. At the Emiquon complex, the trumpeter is further supported by the critical resting, feeding and migratory staging areas provided by this prime habitat.

While city parks and gardens will continue to enchant visitors with non-native mute swans, the Emiquon complex remains an unparalleled natural showcase for the native trumpeter swan. In this remarkable habitat close to home, the trumpeter can be enjoyed throughout much of its life span as it continues to experience its extraordinary rebound.