America’s most common native swan is the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus). This magnificent white bird is smaller than a trumpeter swan, its wingspan measuring only six to seven feet.
The tundra swan has a few unique characteristics about its face. Its black bill has a somewhat concave slope, while its lores cut across its forehead in a straight line. Many times adult swans will have a small yellow spot in front of their eyes, although this is not invariably the case.
Kansans may sometimes see a swan with dirty-looking feathers, particularly on its head and neck. This is likely an immature swan. By the time it returns the following winter, it will be snowy white like its parents.
Best Field Marks
- Pure white plumage.
- Lores form a straight line across forehead.
- Yellow spot in front of eye.
The tundra swan is known for its soft, mellow call, which has been compared to cooing, laughing, and yodeling. This sound is often described as whoo-ho or wow-HOW-ow.
Distribution & Occurrence
The tundra swan is a rare migrant in Kansas, and it also occurs on a casual basis throughout the winter. It may be spotted anytime between early November and late April. Tundra swans are typically seen in the eastern part of the state, especially at the larger reservoirs, as well as at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Watching a group of tundra swans take off can be a rather interesting sight, as they run across the water flapping their wings. Once airborne, they fly in either straight lines or V formations.
The tundra swan dabbles for its food, using its long neck to hunt for submerged pond weeds and roots. It will also eat some seeds and occasionally shoots of grain plants.
Few birdwatchers are likely to be able to attract tundra swans to their property.
The trumpeter swan is the larger of the two swans of Kansas, but size is rarely a reliable field mark. Instead, look for the facial features that make these two birds distinct. The trumpeter swan’s bill slopes evenly into its head, creating a smooth, triangular look. Its lores form a V across its forehead, instead of a straight line. Also be sure to check for a yellow spot in front of the eye. Not all tundra swans have this field mark, but no trumpeter swan ever has it. Finally, hearing the swan call will make identification easy. The trumpeter swan’s voice is powerful and resonant, while the tundra swan sounds soft and mellow.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.