The trumpeter swan is an all-white swan with a wingspan of nearly 8 feet. They fly with their extraordinarily long necks outstretched. In profile, the upper bill appears straight, following the straight line of the forehead. The bill's backward, black extension is broad as it connects against the eye, making the eye appear as part of the bill from a distance.
The voice is a low trumpetlike sound; that of the young is higher and more nasal.
Similar species: Missouri's two other swans are the tundra swan and mute swan.
- The tundra swan is smaller and has a slightly concave bill profile, with the rear point of the bill tapering to and just touching the black eye. Often there is a small yellow spot in front of the eye.
- The mute swan is not native to our continent but can escape from parks; it has become established in many parts of the United States. It has an arched neck, orange bill, and black forehead knob.
Large white birds flying overhead are sometimes difficult to identify. Often white plumage appears black when the sky behind the bird is light. People often confuse swans and geese; swans are larger and have proportionately much longer necks.
Length: 60 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail). Weight can exceed 25 pounds.
Habitat and Conservation
As a winter resident, mostly occurs at marshes, lakes, and rivers. Sometimes seen in agricultural areas, such as corn stubble fields, especially near lakes or other water.
Formerly a common migrant statewide and summer resident in northern Missouri. Currently, individuals and family groups winter in Missouri, foraging in shallow water. Some birds may be from the wild population of the Nebraska Sandhills, but most are from captive breeding programs. If you see trumpeter swans with neck collars, use your binoculars to see the color and numbers of the collar, and report them to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Trumpeter swans forage in shallow water on aquatic vegetation, roots, seeds, and insects.
As a winter resident, uncommon and local; as a summer resident and summer visitor, casual. Formerly a common migrant statewide and summer (breeding) resident in northern Missouri.
A species of conservation concern, it is considered critically imperiled in our state.
Trumpeter swans usually breed in freshwater habitats with dense emergent vegetation, as in inland waters and ponds. Like many other swans, they typically form pair bonds that stay together for life. Nests are constructed of emergent vegetation and feathers, on the ground surrounded with water. A clutch comprises 4–6 eggs; these are incubated for 33–37 days. The young are able to move around and leave the nest within a day of hatching. They can fly within 90–122 days after hatching. Lifespan in the wild can exceed 26 years; in captivity, known to live at least 32 years.
Breeding in Missouri is extremely rare but may become more common in the future. The ones that overwinter here probably breed just to the north: from Iowa into Minnesota and Ontario and eastward into the Great Lakes region.
In Missouri, trumpeter swans are typically present from late November until late March. After breeding, they typically return, in family groups, to overwinter in the same location as the previous year.
Trumpeter swans once nested throughout much of the Midwest, but they nearly became extinct in the early 1900s. By the mid-1930s, only about 70 individuals were known to exist. Overhunting was the principal cause, as well as habitat loss. Numbers have been increasing. They are still quite rare and are a joy to see.
Trumpeter swans are considered critically imperiled in our state. Hunters who shoot trumpeter swans risk thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail. If you’re hunting snow geese, make sure you can distinguish between them and trumpeter swans, which are about twice their size!
The return of this species from the brink of extinction took a great deal of effort. One big hurdle is that this migrating species needs to be taught to breed in certain regions. When these birds were extirpated from their former breeding territory, including Missouri, none were left that knew to fly to our state for breeding season. Reintroduction efforts sometimes had to include a way of teaching the birds where they needed to go.
There are still plenty of conservation threats, including habitat loss, lead poisoning (from swallowing lead shot or fishing weights), collisions with power lines, and disturbance of nesting sites.
Swans, geese, and other aquatic grazers are important components of wetland, pond, and lake ecosystems, pruning the steadily growing vegetation and insect populations. In turn, these birds, especially their vulnerable eggs and young, provide food for carnivores.
Trumpeter swans are connected to muskrats and beavers. They often nest on the raised, moundlike houses those rodents construct. When muskrats and beavers were overhunted, the swans' nesting locations decreased, further hampering the swans' reproductive success.
Where to See Species
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.