The Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest swan in the world, weighing 20 to 30 pounds and measuring seven to eight feet from wingtip to wingtip. Combine its size with its beautiful white plumage and the result is one of the most impressive birds in America.
There are a few characteristics of the Trumpeter Swan that are often overlooked, however. They have black bills that slope smoothly into their foreheads for a triangular effect. At the base of the swan’s bill is a pink line that looks like a smile when viewed at close range. Also, if the bird is looking at you head-on, you will notice that the feathers and the bill meet in a V shape.
Although Trumpeter Swans do not breed in Kansas, residents may sometimes spot immature birds sporting a combination of adult and juvenal plumage. The swans emerge from the nest a dingy gray-white color with dirty pink bills and feet. Their feathers slowly molt to white with age, the head and neck being the last areas to change color. The young swans will look just like their parents after about a year of age.
Best Field Marks
- Pure white plumage.
- Flat slope from bill to forehead.
- Lores form a V across forehead.
The Trumpeter Swan is known for its powerful, resonant oh-OH honk. This sound, often compared to the horn on an antique car, can be heard for miles and is frequently given when the bird is flying or swimming.
Trumpeter Swans can also peep, hiss, and gurgle.
Distribution & Occurrence
Trumpeter Swans were once a rare sight in Kansas, but as their numbers increase nationwide, Kansans are enjoying these majestic birds on a more regular basis. Trumpeters are most common in the northeastern corner of the state, preferring large, shallow wetlands and lakes. Winter ice, however, can encourage them to seek new homes, and they may consider smaller ponds, provided they are still unfrozen. Trumpeter Swans sometimes show up in urban areas and agricultural fields, as well.
These swans typically arrive in Kansas in November, spend the winter as long as they can find open water, and leave in March. They go to breed in parts of Alaska, Canada, and the northern contiguous states.
Trumpeter Swans travel in family groups consisting of a pair, typically bonded for life, and the offspring that hatched earlier in the year. They fly low, either in a straight line or in a V formation.
Swans are dabblers, using their long necks to hunt for vegetation under the water. In deeper water, they tip up like ducks. They may also move into the fields to nibble on wheat during the winter.
Birdwatchers can only hope to attract swans if they happen to own a large body of water. Sometimes, however, Trumpeter Swans will be content to settle for less room if all of the nearby water sources are frozen over. If this happens, they may get friendly with any humans who are willing to hand out corn.
Distinguishing between the two swans of Kansas can be something of a challenge. The Tundra Swan is the smaller of the two. It tends to have a little more curve to its bill and a more rounded head. This difference is subtle, but the Tundra Swan’s head is definitely not as triangular as the Trumpeter Swan’s. Also, when the Tundra Swan looks at you head-on, you will notice that the line across its forehead is straight, not V-shaped. If you happen to hear the swan call, the identification will be easy. The Tundra Swan’s call is a mellow yodel instead of a resonant trumpet blast.
Confusion between the Snow Goose and the Trumpeter Swan is not likely, but has been known to occur. The Snow Goose is much smaller and has black wingtips, a pink bill, and pink legs.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.