Trumpeter Swans

Cygnus buccinator
Trumpeter swans swimming on Benson Pond
Malheur Refuge hosts a small non-migratory bevy [flock] of trumpeter swans. The swans were reintroduced to the refuge in the 1950s when trumpeter swans were in peril of extinction. A small group of swans were transported from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana to the refuge to extend their distribution in the western United States and to provide better over-wintering habitat. With increases in the size of the Malheur bevy a number of cygnets [young swans] were transplanted in the mid-1990s to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area, managed by the State of Oregon, to increase distribution across their range. The Malheur bevy can be found on ponds and open water in the Blitzen Valley portion of the refuge. A favorite location is in the vicinity of Benson Pond. In the winter smaller, migratory tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are also present on ponds used by resident trumpeter swans, providing a wonderful opportunity to compare the two species.

Trumpeters form pair bonds at three to four years old and the pair remains together throughout the year, even while migrating. Some individuals may switch mates over their lifetime, while others may not pair up again if they lose their mate. They prefer nesting sites with enough surface water for them to take off, as well as accessible food. Their nest is a large open bowl of aquatic vegetation, grasses or sedges which is then lined with down and some body feathers. They prefer slightly elevated sites surrounded by water and may use muskrat mounds or small islands. They may use the same location for several years and both help build the nest.

Both parents participate in raising the cygnets; however the female does most of the incubation (32-37 days) of the 4-6 eggs. Trumpeter swan eggs are large, even larger than condor eggs, and may possibly be the largest of any flying bird found in the world today. While nesting, trumpeter swans are territorial and harass other birds and animals who enter the area of their nest.

The cygnets are able to swim within two days and usually are capable of feeding themselves after, at most, two weeks. The fledging stage is reached at 3 to 4 months. Trumpeters feed on submerged and emergent aquatic vegetation, grasses and grains. In the winter they may eat crop remnants in agricultural fields, but prefer to feed while swimming. The young are fed on insects, small fish, fish eggs and small crustaceans along with plants initially, providing additional protein, changing to a vegetation-based diet over the first few months.

Trumpeter swan cygnets on Benson Pond with their parents

Swan cygnets with one of their parents

Trumpeter swans are divided into three populations: the Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain and Interior Populations. The trumpeter swans at Malheur and Summer Lake do not migrate, however migrating Rocky Mountain Population swans can be found in the eastern Idaho, western Montana and Wyoming area. Much to the consternation of Malheur’s resident swans, migrating trumpeter swans may occasionally show up at Malheur when severe, cold temperatures in their wintering areas limit food availability.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the trumpeter swan was hunted heavily, both as game and a source of feathers – their flight feathers were exceptional as quill pens. This species is also unusually sensitive to lead poisoning while young. Trumpeter swans bred in North America from northwestern Indiana west to Oregon in the U.S., and in Canada from James Bay to the Yukon, and they migrated as far south as Texas and southern California. The trumpeter was rare or extinct in most of the United States by the early twentieth century. Many thousands survived in the core range in Canada and Alaska, however, where populations have since rebounded.

Early efforts to reintroduce this bird into other parts of its original range, and to introduce it elsewhere, have had only modest success, as suitable habitats have dwindled and the released birds do not undertake migrations. More recently, populations in all three major population regions have shown sustained growth over the past thirty-years. Data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show 400% growth in that period, with signs of increasing growth rates over time.

The Trumpeter Swan Society is the best source for information about these magnificent birds.

Facts About Trumpeter Swans

Body Length 4.5 - 5.5 feet

Wingspan 6 -6 feet

Males are cobs

Females are pens 

Juveniles are cygnets 

Can live 27 years in the wild