Birdist Rule #48: Go Find a Swan—a Wild Swan

And when you do, prepare to be wowed.

We’ve all seen the image on a Happy Anniversary card or one of those positivity posters hanging in the doctor’s office: two swans facing each other on a calm pond, their respective long necks slightly arched in toward one other, forming an approximation of humanity’s international symbol for love, the heart. How sweet.

Swans have been associated with romantic love for at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, who told of Zeus disguising himself as one of these giant birds to seduce the Spartan princess Leda. There are natural links in addition to that problematic mythology: Swans are large and graceful, and some species mate for life. Take all of that together and you’ve got yourself an enduring symbol of devotion. So much so that the boats in the old carnival Tunnel of Love were shaped like swans, and the towels on the bed in your honeymoon suite are contorted to look like them (yes, that is a swan towel blog).

Apologies, but I’m here to tell you that this isn't true. Or, at least, that the popular image of swans as some sort of romantic ambassador leaves a whole lot of the actual story left to be told. In reality, swans are hearty, tough, and mean. They’re bruisers. They are some of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and they lift their huge bodies into the air to migrate thousands of miles across continents. They deserve better than a Hallmark cliche.

My challenge for you, dear reader, is to leave the syrupy swan symbolism behind and venture out to find a real swan—a wild swan. Trust me: Encountering one in its native habitat just might make you fall in love.

Let’s start with the basics. Swans are waterfowl, close relatives of geese and ducks, and spend their days as many waterfowl do: hanging out on the water and feeding on vegetation. What sets swans apart is their size. Swans are huge. Trumpeter Swans have about the same six-foot wingspan as a Bald Eagle, but are twice as long and more than twice as heavy, at about four feet and up to 25 pounds. These are impressive creatures.

Two of the world’s six swan species breed in the United States: Tundra and Trumpeter. Another species, the Whooper Swan, is a rare visitor to western Alaska. A couple of other species have become established in parts of the country, including the Mute Swan in the Northeast and Great Lakes, and the Australian Black Swan in anything-goes Florida.

Let’s start with the Mute Swan, which is for many people the epitome of “swan-ness.” When you see an image of two swans making a heart, it’s almost always Mute Swans, easily identified by their orange bills with a black bump on top.

Pretty though they are, Mute Swans are not the swans I want you to find. American Mute Swans are living a lie: They’re not native (they were brought over from Europe to make rich people’s estates look fancier); they’re not mute (listen to their unattractive “snort and growl” calls here); and they’re not the envoys of love and tranquility that they’re portrayed as. In fact, they can be aggressive and pushy, and their combination of long necks and big appetites mean that they can displace native waterfowl. Several states, such as Michigan, even have programs to manage and reduce Mute Swan populations. 

Instead, go find one of America’s native swans. Both the Tundra and the Trumpeter are pure white with black bills, and can be a challenge to distinguish in the field. Tundra Swans are the most numerous in North America, and are easier to see. Tundra Swans get their name from their arctic breeding habitat, so don’t bother looking for them in the summer. Instead, check the East and West coasts in winter, where flocks crowd large water bodies like the Great Salt Lake or the Chesapeake Bay. 

I saw my first big flock of wintering Tundras at Mason Neck NWR in Virginia in 2012, and will never forget it. While Mute Swans tend to slouch their necks (helping to form that lovely heart shape), Tundras typically swim with their necks straight up, making them look that much larger next to the ducks they associate with. Scanning an icy bay and seeing a mass of pure-white Tundra Swans is one of the truest Mid-Atlantic birding experiences there is, rivaled only perhaps by the Red Knot migration on Delaware Bay or being bitten by greenheads at Forsythe NWR in New Jersey. I highly recommend avoiding the last of those.

Trumpeter Swans look a lot like Tundra Swans but bigger. Size is relative, though, and it can be challenging to identify a single swan without another bird to compare it to. Birders need to give close study to the head, looking at the length of the bill (Trumpeter is longer) and the shape of the black skin patch close to where it meets the eye. Bring a good field guide, and a camera.

Trumpeters are also much less numerous than Tundras. Humans prized these birds for their meat and feathers, and hunted them ruthlessly up through the nineteenth century. By 1935, their U.S. population had been decimated. Thankfully, conservation efforts are paying off. There are now more than 35,000 Trumpeter Swans in North America throughout the Great Lakes, Midwest, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest. Some of these populations are migratory, such as Pacific birds that breed in Alaska but fly south in winter to find open water, while others are sedentary. There are also scattered populations across the country, including some birds I’ve seen here in Virginia that are part of captive breeding programs.

Trumpeter Swans are incredible. They’re just absolutely massive—the heaviest flying bird in North America—and seeing such a large bird fly overhead makes me understand those people who go stand near airport runways to watch 747s land. Hearing a Trumpeter is even better: They’re named for their bugling calls, which sounds to me like Dizzy Gillespie clearing his spit valve.

Trumpeter and Tundra Swans epitomize American grace. Unlike those annoying European quasi-domestic Mute Swans, Trumpeters and Tundras are right at home in the mountains, bays, and lakes of our country, mucking it up with other native waterfowl while flaunting their gleaming white plumage. Fall in love with wild swans, not because they can make their necks look like a heart, but because they’re some of our most amazing species.