BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Swans are a welcome sight of spring
Swans are among the most elegant and eye-catching of all species of birds. They’re big and beautiful and are sometimes called the symbol of love.
It has been the winter that keeps on giving. While shoveling snow from my steps and sidewalk for the umpteenth time a few nights ago, I paused to listen to the stillness of the night air (and my labored breath) for a respite from a chore that I’ve grown weary of.
Though the chorus of wood frogs seemed far away, almost unimaginable, I was reminded of springtime anyway.
Indeed, a large flock of tundra swans flying northward high above my head in the night sky was vocalizing their sweet calls. Unbeknownst to them, they lightened my mood.
Swans are among the most elegant and eye-catching of all species of birds. They’re big and beautiful and are sometimes called the symbol of love. Swans are powerful and graceful in both flight and when observed swimming and feeding.
Their vocalizations (as in the case of tundra swans’ calls) are a whistle, almost flute-like. In fact, the tundra swan’s common name was formerly “whistling” swan. Their musical vocalizations are also described as high-pitched “who-who-whos.”
Their huge black feet, trailing behind them with toes spread and webbing flared, act as rudders. Their wingspans of nearly seven feet across swiftly carry their large 4.5 foot long bodies weighing up to 20 pounds with ease.
In North America, only one other species of waterfowl is larger—the trumpeter swan.
We are lucky to observe such magnificent birds here in Minnesota. Though not as plentiful today as they once were, the tundra swan has fared better than its cousin the trumpeter.
For many reasons, both swans have decreased dramatically since the turn of the century, although trumpeter swans have made a remarkable comeback in Minnesota and now exceed 25,000 birds.
Tundra swans generally form monogamous pairs and are thought to mate for life. They breed and nest in the Arctic regions of northern Alaska and Canada and the female lays anywhere from three to six eggs.
Rarely leaving her nest while incubating, the male frequently stands guard nearby. Following the nesting season, the annual fall migration takes them to wintering areas along the west coast of the United States, Texas, New Mexico and the eastern seaboard.
The other species of swan found in Minnesota and perhaps the most majestic — certainly the largest — is the aptly named trumpeter swan, which embodies the sights and sounds of all that is wild.
This giant bird with a very long neck is around five feet in body length, has a wingspan of seven to eight feet and can weigh as much as 30 pounds.
Like tundra swans, trumpeter swans typically mate for life. Yet unlike its closely related cousin the tundra swan, trumpeters breed and nest throughout Minnesota.
Nesting season for trumpeter swans begins in late April and cygnets hatch in about four to five weeks. And as in all species of swans and geese, both the cob (male swan) and pen (female swan) share in cygnet-rearing duties.
The attentive adults are fiercely protective of not only their offspring but their territory as well. Thus, it is rare to see more than one pair of trumpeters on anyone's pond during the nesting season. Trumpeter swans will also chase off Canada geese from their territories.
Unlike ducks, geese and tundra swans, trumpeter swans do not migrate to their wintering grounds in large flocks. Rather, trumpeters migrate in small family groups, sometimes numbering no more than a half dozen birds to central and southern United States where open water areas and ample food exists.
Come springtime, the adults and their 1-year-old cygnets return north where the adults begin nesting and the yearlings strike off on their own.
Swans are a welcome sign of our Minnesota springs.
Where water is plentiful, tundra swans will often rest and feed before continuing their migration to Arctic summer breeding and nesting grounds; whereas trumpeter swans, having already arrived, some having never left at all, are all about us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.