How to Identify a Trumpeter Swan

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

The well-named trumpeter swan is readily recognizable by its call. Learn where this recovering species can be found.

What Does a Trumpeter Swan Look Like?

trumpeter swansCourtesy Kallie Kantos
Trumpeter swans are large white water birds with black bills.

As the largest native waterfowl species in North America, trumpeter swans have an average wingspan of almost 7 feet and weigh more than 20 pounds, with males larger than the females. These large white birds have black bills and feet.

To get airborne, these swans require a running start of some 100 yards on open water. “You’ll hear the bat, bat, bat, bat, bat of their feet slapping the water as they go,” says Dan Casey, a wildlife biologist in Somers, Montana, who sits on the board of directors for The Trumpeter Swan Society.

Learn more fascinating swan facts you should know.

Trumpeter Swan vs Tundra Swan

Trumpeter swans are often confused with tundra swans, which coexist with trumpeters in areas where their ranges overlap. But trumpeters are larger, and have black markings extending from the bill to the eyes. Tundra swans usually have yellow markings on their bills below the eyes. “Even for experienced birders, if you don’t get a good look, they can be hard to tell apart,” says Dan.

The easiest way to identify which swan you are seeing? By their calls, says Dan. “The tundra swan has a high whistle whereas the trumpeter swan has a sort of vibrato honk—a deep trumpeting sound. They’re called trumpeter swans for a reason.”

Habitat and Range

trumpeter swanCourtesy Marcy Plomski
Look for trumpeter swans on lakes and wetlands in their range.

Trumpeter swans favor shallow water in lakes, ponds, large slow-moving rivers, and marshes with lots of vegetation. They breed on wetlands, and winter on ice-free coastal and inland waters. In late fall, as waters begin to freeze, the swans generally move south, returning in early spring to nest.

“They are truly a wetland nesting bird, and a symbol of wetland health,” says Dan.

In the 1930s, biologists knew of only 69 trumpeters in the contiguous United States, clustered in the Rocky Mountains, although there were others in Alaska and Canada at that time. Today the total population is estimated at over 63,000, mostly in northwestern North America, but with newly reintroduced flocks across the Midwest.”

The Trumpeter Swan Society is working to expand the swans’ range and numbers by restoring wetlands, and addressing threats to their health such as power-line collisions. “There’s more work to be done, but this is a success story for sure,” says Dan.

If you want to see these birds, the Trumpeter Swan Society has compiled lists of zoos raising swans to be released in the wild, and National Wildlife Refuges where you can see the swans at certain times of the year.

What Do Trumpeter Swans Eat?

353704647 1 Rachael Pietscher Bnb Pc 2023Courtesy Rachael Pietscher
Swans’ heads and necks may appear dark from feeding.

Trumpeters forage for vegetation on the water surface, or stir up sediment with their strong webbed feet, then tip up their tails, extending their long necks beneath the water’s surface to eat the leaves, seeds, roots and tubers of aquatic plants. As a result, their heads can be stained a rusty orange from the mineral-rich waters.

During cold periods, they may forage on waste grain and winter crops in farm fields.

Unlike many young birds that need to be fed directly by their parents, newly hatched young, called cygnets, eat insects and other small invertebrates. After about five weeks, the cygnets begin to eat vegetation.

Trumpeter Swan Nesting Habits

309534764 1 Sue Taylor Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Sue Taylor
Juvenile trumpeter swans stay with their parents for about one year.

Trumpeter pairs bond when they are three or four years old, and stay together for many years. A pair may build their nest on a muskrat or beaver lodge, or construct it from marsh vegetation in a secluded area surrounded by water.

In early spring, one egg is laid every other day until a clutch of three to eight eggs is complete. Only then will the female begin incubating to ensure all cygnets hatch within 24 hours of each other. One clutch of eggs is laid per year, and incubation period is about 34 days.

swans Marlon Porter Bnb Bypc2020.jpegCourtesy Marlon Porter
Trumpeter swan cygnets

Absent a brood patch, trumpeters incubate eggs with their webbed feet. “Many birds have a sort of a vascularized patch on their breast where they pluck the feathers and have this warm skin to apply to the eggs,” says Dan. “These swans don’t have that.”

Adult females, called pens, do most of the incubation. But both females and males, called cobs, care for the young, which can swim when less than a day old, and fly three to four months later.

Cygnets are gray, and don’t turn white until the summer of their second year. They leave their parents when they are about a year old.

Sounds and Calls

trumpeter swanCourtesy Doug Cottrell
If you hear these birds, you’ll know how why they are named trumpeter swans.

The trumpeting calls of these well-named majestic birds have been known to be heard from 2 miles away in mountain ranges, says Dan. “To me, trumpeter swans are evocative of healthy, wild wetland habitat. It lifts my spirits to hear them.”

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

About the Expert

Dan Casey is a wildlife biologist in Somers, Montana. He is a board member and conservation committee chair for The Trumpeter Swan Society, which is based in Plymouth, Minnesota.