Trumpeter Swans

Swans in Flight

Historically, trumpeter swans ranged from Alaska, southward throughout the Northern Great Plains and Mississippi River watershed to the Gulf of Mexico. Population numbers were abundant across their range during the 19th century. However, trumpeter swan populations were decimated by market hunters during the mid to late 19th century. Swan skins and feathers were highly valued and it was believed that trumpeter swan wing feathers made some of the best ink quill pens. By the turn of the 20th century, trumpeter swans were virtually eliminated from the prairies and by some accounts were destined for extinction. The need to re-establish viable populations of trumpeter swans to the plains was suggested by Winston Banko, Refuge Manager, Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), in 1958 and published in his book "The Trumpeter Swan" in 1960.

Trumpeter swans were re-introduced to the Northern Great Plains on September 15, 1960 at Lacreek NWR. A total of 20 cygnets were captured and transported to the Refuge from Red Rock Lakes NWR, located in southwestern Montana. Additional releases of 17 and 20 cygnets occurred in 1961 and 1962, respectively. The first production of cygnets on the Refuge occurred in 1963. The population has grown steadily over the last 40 years as birds have pioneered to new nesting habitats. The majority of nesting now occurs within 100 miles of Lacreek NWR on large semi-permanent wetlands in the sandhills of Nebraska and South Dakota. This area is ideal for trumpeters, as these large wetlands have excellent water quality with abundant sumberged and emergent vegetation. Little disturbance occurs on these isolated wetlands and the ranchers who own them are glad to see the trumpeters return each spring to nest.

It has been discovered through neck collar observations that some of the trumpeters that winter at Lacreek NWR, nest at Greenwater Lake Provincial Park in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan. It is estimated that 50 to 100 of these trumpeter swans may now winter at Lacreek NWR with the High Plains Flock and return each spring to Saskatchewan. Currently, the High Plains Flock of trumpeter swans is estimated to total around 600 birds. There are ups and downs in the High Plains Flock; however, the long term trend is a very gradual increase. A population goal of 500 total trumpeter swans has been set by the Central Flyway Committee for the High Plains Flock.

Initially, management focus was placed on protection of this fledgling flock. The trumpeters were provided with feeding stations, and water was managed to provide open water even during the coldest periods of winter. Trumpeters do not pioneer into new wintering locations easily, and it was feared that this small flock would disappear if they were unable to find places to winter. They could also be protected from disturbance and poaching during severe winters on Lacreek NWR. Just as the trumpeters had pioneered new nesting territories over time, they also found new locations to overwinter. A large percent of the High Plains Flock now returns to Lacreek NWR each winter. Management is now focused on providing abundant natural foods, especially submerged roots and tubers of arrowhead and sago pondweed. These natural foods are heavily utilized during the fall and winter and aid the trumpeter swans with maintaining body condition through winter and into the spring nesting season. The natural springs flowing into Lacreek NWR maintain open water through most of the winter. When night time temperatures drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for extended periods, most of the submerged feeding areas freeze. Many of the trumpeter swans will then move to the Snake, Niobrara, North Loup, and South Loup Rivers in Nebraska. Because they are spring fed, these rivers maintain open water in places even during severe cold periods, allowing the trumpeters to survive. As soon as the temperatures moderate, many of the trumpeters will make the one or two hour flight back to Lacreek NWR.

Historically, it was believed that many of the trumpeters which nested in the Great Plains wintered to the south along the major river drainages and the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Managers have discussed the possibility of assisting the trumpeters with re-establishing migratory paths to wintering locations further to the south. So far, no wintering locations have been identified that can provide the food and security needed. Birds from the High Plains Flock have been documented as far south as Oklahoma, so it is possible that the trumpeters may find wintering locations to the south on their own. Until then, management will be focused on providing food resources for the fall and winter at Lacreek NWR and monitoring populations on the breeding territories in the sandhills. 

The best time to view swans at Lacreek NWR is from October through March . A high count of 386 trumpeter swans was counted in November of 2007, with 100-250 typically present for most of this period. Extended cold periods will cause many trumpeters to move to rivers to the south. Many return as soon as the temperatures moderate. The best place for viewing is from the Auto Tour Route just south of the Refuge Headquarters. Many years, there may also be nesting pairs within driving distance of Refuge Headquarters that can be viewed from public roads from April to September. Inquire at Refuge Headquarters for the status and location of these pairs. 

This is one of the success stories in wildlife management. A truly magnificent bird has returned and is now a wild and free flying population!