The Trumpeting Swan

"For a perfect conception of their beauty and elegance, you must observe them when they are not aware of your proximity, as they glide over the waters of some secluded inland pond. The neck, which at other times is held stiffly upright, moves in graceful curves, now bent forward, now inclined backwards over the body. The head, with an extended scooping movement, dips beneath the water, then with a sudden effort it throws a flood over its back and wings, while the sparkling globules roll off like so many large pearls. The bird then shakes its wings, beats the water, and, as if giddy with delight, shoots away, gliding over and beneath the surface of the stream with surprising agility and grace. Imagine a flock of fifty Swans thus sporting before you. I have more than once seen them. And you will feel, as I have felt, happier and freer of care than I can describe."

-- J. J. Audubon

The soft grey dawn light wraps round like a blanket. Standing. Listening. Relishing. Ahhh - Do you hear it? The murmuring and gurgles on the lake? Then, without warning, a french horn sounds! No call to battle this. Merely the Trumpeter Swans greeting the dawn.

Nine years at Elk Lake. Nine years in the heart of the Trumpeter Swan restoration area. Surely I have been amiss to not have shown the spotlight on these amazing birds!

And so, I plan the next two posts to focus on North America's largest largest waterfowl, and the one with a most notable call.

Trumpeter Swans mate for life. Only if one dies will the other seek another partner. Young swans begin pairing between ages 2 and 3 while at their wintering grounds. That spring, after mating, the pair builds their nest - sometimes on new ground, sometimes close to where the pen (female) hatched.

They often arrive at their nesting local before the ice has conceded to the summer sun. The pen choses the nest site. The cob (male) defends it. According to the Trumpeter Swan Society, "If a pair spends at least two summers at the same nesting location, it will form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site."

Trumpeters prefer nesting on muskrat houses, beaver lodges or large beds of marshy plant life. The pair which nested on Elk Lake (photo above - courtesy of Newt Purdue) chose a large reed bed surrounded by water.

Home building is a time-consuming affair. Beginning mid April the pair will spend up to 2 weeks perfecting their nest. At its base it can reach 6 feet in width - narrowing to about 1 1/2 feet at surface level. Once built, the pair may return to it for numerous years, rebuilding and reusing the same site over and over.

In late April or early May the pen will begin laying several off-white oblong eggs (each 4 1/2" by 3" and weighing about 12 ounces). She will lay 3 to 9 eggs, one every other day. Upon completion the pair will have a noisy celebration.

For five weeks (33 days) the pen faithfully attends her eggs, leaving daily only for short periods to feed, bathe, or preen her feathers. Unlike some bird species, the male (cob) does not take part in hatching the young. When the pen leaves, she covers her eggs with nesting material. Her mate stands guard.

Trumpeters are very protective of their nest and young. They will attempt to drive off any would be invaders, and, if successful will celebrate their victory with much loud trumpeting, wing quivering, and head bobbing.

Within a day of hatching (usually in late May to mid-June), the cygnets begin paddling around on the water. Early on their diet consists of crustaceans, insects, and aquatic beetles stirred up from the bottom by their parent's rapid paddling (called puddling). The cygnets grow rapidly, gaining over a pound a week until they reach maturity (an average gain of 20% of their body weight a day!).

The young are vocal (although they cannot trumpet until 15 to 20 weeks - about the same age their parents begin urging them to fly) and active - dashing about and diving under the water, little swans mimicking their large white parents.

By the time they reach six weeks, grey feathers (typically) begin to replace grey down. Within 3 to 4 weeks they will have all their adult feathers. During this time at least one parent molts. The adult swans stagger their summer molt so one parent is always able to fly.

By late September the cygnets are deep into their most important lesson to date - flying. A young swan unable to fly by ice-up would be doomed to death. Thus the adults urge them on through their bouncing and struggling as they flap and run over the water seeking to get their large frame airborn.

It is an amazing feet of aerodynamics that allows this large bird to get its weight off the ground. Note the body size of the bird above. A mature bird weighs 20 - 30 pounds (although some large males have tilted the scales closer to 40 pounds).

While their wingspan can reach an impressive eight feet, getting their bulk up, out of the water, and into the air takes grace, speed, balance, and the ability to run on water as you can see from the series above. Yet flight is an imperative ingredient in the swan's repertoire and critical to the bird's survival. It not only allows the birds to escape threats and predation, it also equips them to travel to their wintering grounds.

This amazing bird exudes grace in spite of its vast size. Its call is very deep and majestic, its bearing noble, and the simplicity of its markings distinctly royal. The more I learn about this amazing creature, the more I am in awe of its Creator. Next time we'll study a few more characteristics which make the Trumpeter Swan 'not just your local swan'! (Note: All material from either the Trumpeter Swan Socity or Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge websites.

Lady of the Lake

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