Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
Weighing from 25-35 pounds when fully grown, the trumpeter swan is the world's largest waterfowl. When fully extended, their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet. The trumpeter is similar in appearance to other white swans, but their foreheads slope evenly to an all black bill. The more common and smaller tundra (whistling) swan usually has a yellow spot in front of its eye.
Trumpeter swans are unique among Michigan waterfowl. They normally do not breed until their fourth year. They also form strong pair bonds that can last for years. Their nests can be huge, at times reaching five feet across, and they are usually built among aquatic plants like cattails. They will often use the tops of muskrat houses for a nest base.
After hatching, young trumpeters stay with the parents until the next spring when the pair begins nesting. Survival of young trumpeter swans is often high because of this extra parental attention.
The cygnets begin eating a diet of aquatic insects. Insects provide a high source of protein for the swiftly growing birds. By five weeks of age, the cygnets' diet consists of aquatic vegetation and roots. The swans tip up like mallards and root through the mud for their favorite roots. Their long necks give them an advantage. They can feed much deeper than either Canada geese or dabbling ducks.
Trumpeter swans feeding in the tannin-stained marshes and streams of the Upper Peninsula can be identified by the orange-red staining on their necks.
Historically, trumpeter swans were most likely abundant throughout the Great Lakes region, even in the southern Michigan marshlands. On his travels along the Detroit River in 1701, Cadillac compared the abundance of swans to lilies among the rushes. However, with the settlement of America, the populations of trumpeters plummeted. Beginning in the late 1800s, European settlers cleared the land, draining and filling important marsh habitat, and market hunters took swans for their fine down and quills. By 1933, only 66 trumpeter swans remained in the continental United States, mainly in remote parts of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Nearly 100 years passed before trumpeter swans were seen again in the Michigan wilds.
Today, three species of swans can be found in Michigan. The trumpeter is the largest and has an all-black bill. The other resident swan, the mute swan, is a European import. The easiest way to distinguish the mute swan is by its orange bill. They also often have a bulbous knot at the top of their bill. The third species, the tundra swan, passes through our state on their migration routes. Shortly after ice thaws, hundreds to sometimes thousands of tundra swans can be seen resting in Great Lakes marshes. Two of the best sites to see this migration spectacle are the Saginaw Bay area and Maple River Management Unit in south central Michigan.
During the 1980s, Michigan began a swan reintroduction program as part of the North American Restoration Plan. The Michigan commitment to the plan was establishment of three self-sustaining populations in Michigan of at least 200 swans by the year 2000. Early attempts at cross-fostering trumpeter eggs with mute swans provided low success rates and were abandoned.
The second phase involved rearing of cygnets for two years prior to releasing them into prime wetland habitat. Eggs were collected from zoos and incubated to hatching. The rearing approach proved much more successful. Additionally, in 1989, biologists from the DNR and Kellogg Bird Sanctuary traveled to Alaska to collect eggs from wild populations to include in the rearing program.
To raise awareness of the program, the Natural Heritage Program highlighted the trumpeter swan on the Living Resources patch, T-shirt, and print, produced in 1990-1991. After nearly 15 years, the Program can be claimed a complete success: the 2000 count of trumpeter swans in Michigan exceeded 400 individuals.
The 2000 population census identified three distinct population areas. The first included southwest Michigan with over 100 birds. The second population was found in the four-county region of Oscoda, Alcona, Ogemaw, and Iosco. At least 50 swans were found in this area. The most likely place to see trumpeter swans in Michigan is Schoolcraft County in the central Upper Peninsula. Seney National Wildlife Refuge had a total of 191 birds with 18 pairs nesting on the area. Seney, as well as a couple other sites in Schoolcraft County, harbors over 50 percent of the trumpeters known in Michigan.
One southern Michigan pair was recognized as highly successful. This pair had been nesting on a pond in Eaton County since 1991. During this ten-year span, they fledged 43 cygnets and brought at least 33 of those birds through the first year. With this kind of success, the population has been increasing steadily.
The Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program again demonstrates that Michigan's wetlands still offer good habitat. Its continued restoration will depend on ensuring we protect our remaining wetland habitat. Its continued restoration will depend on ensuring we protect our remaining wetland habitat. The invasive non-native mute swan also poses a significant threat to the continued success of the native trumpeter swan.