Trumpeter Swans 101

Photo Courtesy of Steven Niewoehner

Trumpeter Swans were once common in Iowa, but the last wild mated pair nested in Iowa in 1883. They were completely gone from the state by the late 1880s. They were prized for their meat, skin and beautiful pure white feathers. By the early 1930s, only 69 remained in the lower 48 states.

In 1998, a wild pair were spotted in Dubuque County and hatched 3 that year.  In 1999, the pair hatched 5 and again in 2000.  Iowa DNR have been active in Trumpeter Swan releases. Interestingly, it has been found that released Swans do not migrate far from their release site. It has only been the past twenty years that they have rebounded through many conservation efforts. Trumpeter Swans are considered a conservation success story by many. However, they do have current threats with habitat loss, lead poisoning, power line accidents and are occasionally shot. It is illegal to hunt Trumpeter Swans.

These beautiful all-white birds are the largest North American waterfowl species. They can weigh from 25- 32 pounds with an average 8-9 foot wingspan. They have black beaks and black legs. They are often confused with Tundra Swan. The Trumpeter Swan’s scientific name, Cygnus buccinator, is from the Latin Cygnus (swan) and buccinare (to trumpet).

The male and female mate for life. If the male loses his mate, he often does not take a mate again. In the wild, they live to be up to 24 years old and in captivity around 33 years. Mating does not occur until they are at least three years old. Egg laying begins in late April or May with 4-6 eggs hatched being average. The eggs take 32-37 days to incubate and young take 90-120 days to fly after hatching. Their breeding habitat consists of large shallow ponds, undisturbed lakes, pristine wetlands and marshes. They use the same nesting site year after year. Their adult summer diet consists of aquatic plants with a winter diet of farm field grains and grasses. In a group, they fly in a V-shaped pattern. They are very affected by human disturbance and will abandon a nest if disturbed. They typically will nest within 600 feet of shore and need at least 100 yards of open water for take off to fly.

An estimated 160 trumpeter swans are currently wintering at the Dale Maffitt Reservoir and surrounding area southwest of Des Moines. This provides a rare opportunity to view good numbers of free flying Trumpeter Swans. Visit them soon before they move onto other areas.

Trumpeter Swan can also be spotted while paddling or hiking at Sweet Marsh Wildlife Area in Bremer County in the early spring.

To listen to Trumpeter Swan sounds, go
Information credits:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Wikipedia, Iowa DNR, Trumpeter Swan Society.