North America’s largest native waterbird, the Trumpeter swan, was threatened with extinction in the 1930s, but has since made a dramatic comeback, with more than 63,000 birds recorded in the continent in 2015. They breed across Canada and the northern United States, but when the first signs of winter set in, and lakes begin to freeze over, some populations temporarily move inland. If you’d like to learn more about migration patterns of Trumpeter swans, keep reading!
Trumpeter swans raise their young on marshes, freshwater lakes, and coastal wetlands, with scattered populations across Alaska, Canada, and around the Great Lakes states. If breeding grounds ice over in winter, populations may migrate, although some remain in their home territories all year round.
Some Trumpeter swans do undertake longer migrations, covering distances of between 700 km and 1000 km (435 mi to 620 mi) in fall and spring, while others settle for winter just a short distance away from their breeding grounds before heading north again once the worst conditions have eased.
If you’d like to learn more about the overwintering destinations of these giant white waterbirds, and when and how they make their journeys, then our guide to Trumpeter swan migration is a great place to start.
Not all Trumpeter swans migrate, as some will remain in their territory year round.
Although not all Trumpeter swans are migratory, many of those that breed along the edges of Alaska and in Canada often choose to move inland as temperatures drop in fall and coastal waters and lakes start to ice over.
Populations of Trumpeter swans living in non-coastal areas of Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, as well as those that live further inland – in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario – may remain in the same territory all year round or migrate only short distances, of less than 160 km (100 mi).
Migratory Trumpeter swans start leaving their summer breeding territories as soon as the first ice forms on the surface of the lakes they depend on for foraging. This is usually from late October to November. Some Alaskan populations may set off even earlier, from late September onwards.
Return migration in the spring is typically early, beginning in February, with swan pairs leaving wintering grounds on the Pacific Coast by late February to March, and arriving to breed in Alaska and Yukon by mid-April.
A small flock of Trumpeter swans on a small lake in Wisconsin during late summer
At extreme northern latitudes, foraging waters start to freeze over with the onset of winter, which inhibits the ability of Trumpeter swans to find food. Heading inland or further down the coast of the United States offers a good temporary solution to winter survival.
Trumpeter swans are considered resident to medium-distance migrants. Many populations remain in the same territories all year round, but those in more extreme coastal areas do need to seek a change in habitat during winter months.
Most Trumpeter swans’ migrations cover relatively short distances, up to around 160 km, but many fly no further than 25 km to 70 km (15 mi to 45 mi). Populations living on the iciest coasts travel much further in search of frost-free wintering grounds.
These include Trumpeter swans that breed in Wisconsin and Iowa, which fly between 700 m and 1000 km (435 mi to 620 mi) south to spend winters in inland states, in particular Illinois, Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri.
Close up of a young Trumpeter swan on the lake
The length of Trumpeter swan varies depending on geographical location, weather conditions and the availability of food at foraging sites. Some populations migrate over short distances, remaining relatively local to their breeding sites. Such flights will be completed in a matter of days or less.
Trumpeter swans that undertake lengthier migrations may take up to two months to reach their final destinations, with stopovers at staging points lasting from between 7 days and 1.5 months.
Populations of swans that depend on foraging grounds that freeze in winter will typically move inland to frost-free lakes and reservoirs. These birds may only need to fly a relatively short distance before they arrive at suitable wintering grounds to support their feeding needs.
Trumpeter swans that breed in the coastal regions of Alaska and British Columbia move further down the U.S. coast once the earliest signs of winter arrive. Birds that breed inland in Alaska and western Canada head to the U.S. states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to take advantage of the comparatively milder winters.
States that host large winter populations, but are not usually home to breeding Trumpeter swans include Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, as well as isolated spots in Texas.
Trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The longest migrations, undertaken by around 10 percent of all Trumpeter swans, cross between the northern states of Iowa and Wisconsin, to four warmer locations further south: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
Eastern populations of Trumpeter swans that breed in Ontario may only temporarily shift a short distance, spending winters further south in the same province, with others scattering further south and east, to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio.
Trumpeter swans breeding in Yukon and Northwest Territories follow a migration route east of the Rocky Mountains, heading to wintering grounds in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
As the distances of a Trumpeter swan’s migrations vary, so do the journey times. Spring migration often begins as early as February, with most birds having left their wintering territories by mid-March, and all but the latest stragglers arriving on their breeding grounds by April.
Migration flights are frequently unhurried affairs, factoring in stopovers which can last for up to 6 weeks before the final stages of the journey are made.
Arctic tundra Trumpeter swans seen in northern Canada, during their migration to the Bering Sea for the summer.
Trumpeter swans migrate in stages, stopping off during their flight to break their journeys. Sites with expanses of open water are often chosen as stopover points, and weather and the availability of food resources will determine how long these ‘rest breaks’ last before the original journey resumes.
It’s typical for Trumpeter swans to migrate as part of a small family group, usually consisting of between 10 and 25 birds, both to their wintering grounds and on the return leg when they head back to their breeding grounds in the spring.
A flock of Trumpeter swans
Not all Trumpeter swans are migratory, with many being year-round residents in their breeding territories. Even those that do migrate to avoid frozen foraging grounds do not always undertake lengthy migration flights, with relocations to inland lakes a short distance away being fairly common.
While many Trumpeter swans do migrate further inland and to the south during winter months, this is not always the case. Many populations are sedentary, living in the same territories all year round and raising their young on the same lakes on which they spend winters.
Around 10 percent of Trumpeter swans are long-distance migrants, covering extensive distances from northern icy waters in the Great Lakes to frost-free waters further south, which offer plentiful foraging opportunities in the coldest months.
Trumpeter swan in flight, taken in Brunswick Point, Delta, BC, Canada
Trumpeter swans raise their young on breeding grounds at freshwater lakes and marshlands. For some, these habitats provide a suitable foraging territory all year round, and they do not need to relocate in winter.
For some pairs, their chosen breeding grounds are further north, in Alaska, and in Canada’s Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and into British Columbia and Alberta – in landscapes that cannot support their feeding needs all year round.
These Trumpeter swans arrive in early spring ahead of nesting and breeding, sometimes when ice is still present on the surface of lakes and wetlands.
Trumpeter swan swimming through the water
Trumpeter swans migrate during daylight hours, and can often be seen in the skies of Canada and northern U.S. in late fall, flying low in the sky in a V-shape, looking out for ice-free waters on the land below.
Trumpeter swans will usually migrate in small family groups, both to their wintering grounds and again in spring, ahead of the breeding season. Swan pairs mate for life, so remain with their mate through winter and undertake their return migration flights together.
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