birders see Tundra Swans during migration and winter when
large flocks of hundreds to thousands migrate to a winter
range in brackish and freshwater marshes along the East
Coast from New Jersey through the Chesapeake Bay to
coastal North Carolina, or on the Pacific Coast inland
through the Central Valley of California locally to Utah.
There they feed on aquatic plants such as wild celery,
widgeon grass, bulrushes and pondweeds. A trend toward
feeding on waste grains in agricultural fields has
compensated for losses of natural marsh habitat.
During the breeding season, Tundra Swans become strongly
territorial and scatter throughout the arctic tundra to
nest sites near open water. Nesting season begins in late
May while there is still snow on the ground. Nests
consist of mosses, grasses, and leaves piled at the edge
of a pond, occasionally floating in the water. The nest
may be two feet high and six feet across. Both parents
build the nest, incubate the eggs, and care for the
young. Clutches of from four to six eggs are typical. As
the parents begin their annual molt and flightless period
in July, the young join them on the water. Adults feed on
water plants and algae and are able to reach three feet
into the water, tipping in the manner of puddle ducks if
necessary, while cygnets feed mostly on insects and other
aquatic invertebrates. The rapidly growing immatures are
able to fly at three months and stay with their parents
through at least the first winter. Studies of European
swans suggest that pair bonds are long-lasting and that
family groups may stay together for up to three years.
In the fall, family groups join flocks to migrate.
Western Alaska breeders move south along the Pacific
Coast, and the rest of the population moves across
interior Canada to the eastern winter range.
Description: Tundra Swans are the
smallest of the North American swans. They are all white
with black legs and feet. The bills are black with
varying amounts of yellow at the base. Juveniles are
grayish-brown, becoming paler and whiter through the
first winter, and attaining adult plumage by the second
winter. They have pink bills and grayish feet and legs.
Tundra Swans vary geographically, including the Eurasian
race known as Bewick's Swan and the North American
population formerly considered a separate species and
known as Whistling Swan. Like the Whistling Swan,
Bewick's Swan is smaller in size than other swans, but
differs in typically showing much more yellow on the bill
than the North American form. Bewick's has occurred as a
vagrant in Alaska, Saskatchewan, Oregon and California.
In North America the main identification problem is with
Trumpeter Swan (Olor buccinator), which has a
range partially overlapping that of the Tundra Swan.
Trumpeter Swans are larger-bodied, with longer and
thicker bills. The bill of the Trumpeter Swan is all
black with a narrow red cutting edge visible only at
close range. North American Tundra Swans have slightly
concave bills, normally showing a small yellow patch in
front of the eye (although this is not always present)
and no red cutting edge. The feathering on the face of
the Trumpeter Swan extends into the bare skin at the base
of the bill in a point, while on the Tundra Swan this
border is a smoother curve. The Tundra Swan's eye is
almost isolated from the bare facial skin above the bill
by white feathers, while in Trumpeter Swans a broader
band of bare skin connects the eye to the bill. Another
subtle difference is the Tundra Swan's habit of holding
its neck more vertically erect than the Trumpeter, which
more often carries its neck curved back on its shoulders.
The calls of the Trumpeter Swan are more resonant and
crane-like than the goose-like calls of the Tundra Swan.
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