A Conservation Success Story to Trumpet About
Hans Christian Andersen gave the world a crash course in waterfowl identification in his classic tale, “The Ugly Duckling.” The Danish author taught us as preschoolers that ducklings are adorable and fluffy, and grown-up swans are big, white and beautiful.
As I grew older, I began to ask “Which duck? Which swan?” The former proved a challenging question with so many choices in the field, but the latter was a piece of cake. There was only one option in Illinois: the non-native mute swan. But one year, as I was exploring the back waters in southern Illinois, a gigantic swan came into view. This was not just an ugly-duckling-turned-pretty. It was the largest and most magnificent white bird I had ever seen. It was a trumpeter swan.
The native trumpeter swan nearly had an unhappily-ever-after ending as its numbers plummeted in the 19th and 20th centuries. The species is making a come-back in Illinois, and its recovery is a good-news tale.
The trumpeter swan is a massive bird. Males, called cobs, tip the scales between 30 and 38 pounds. Females, or pens, weight slightly less. They are about 4 feet tall when standing, and their wingspan can stretch 8 feet. As adults, trumpeter swan plumage is snow white. Juveniles, or cygnets, appear gray or dusky. The cygnet’s bill is pinkish until maturity when it becomes all-black.
The signature call of the trumpeter swan is an acoustical treat. It has often been described in terms of a wind instrument—a trumpet, a bugle, or even a French horn, and the Latin name, Cygnus buccinator, seems to describe the sound well. (Give it a listen by visiting https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Trumpeter_Swan/sounds.) Similar to these instruments, the trumpeter swan’s sound is produced by air moving through a tube. The tube is a long, complex, coiled trachea (windpipe). The trumpeting call carries two or more miles across wetlands and prairies.
As a species, the trumpeter swan comprises three subsets in North America: the Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain and Interior populations. Illinois lies on the edge of the historic breeding grounds of the Interior Population.
It comes as no surprise that a bird as large as the trumpeter swan was once a food source for humans. Indigenous peoples of North America hunted swans for their meat, and European newcomers followed suit. Fur trappers harvested swans for their skins, which were used for products such as women’s powder puffs and the linings of vests and hats. Swan feather quills were highly sought-after for writing and painting.
“The number of quills required to keep an American colony writing was formidable,” according to Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives, “often numbering in the thousands for a writing master at a large school.”
The next chapter in the trumpeter swan story features the all-too common themes of habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Wetlands were drained and filled for agriculture or became dumping grounds for industry. The millinery industry and its demand for feathers to adorn ladies’ hats added to hunting pressure. The trumpeter swan was nearly extirpated from the state of Illinois and much of the Interior Population range in the early 1900s.
As the 19th and early 20th wreaked havoc on native swan populations, another challenge arose with the introduction of the mute swan from Europe. This non-native bird was brought to North America in the early 1800s, largely for its “glam factor.” This regal, curve-necked swan became a status symbol for large estates surrounded by ponds and waterways. Mute swans began showing up in city parks as well, adding a touch of elegance to the landscape, and at least occasionally with hopes of limiting or displacing Canada geese that had become a nuisance.
While stylish, mute swans proved to be destructive. The ecological impact of mute swans became evident in the mid-1900s on the east coast as they aggressively outcompeted native waterfowl for habitat and food. Mute swan numbers increased across the mid-section of the United States, leaving a trail of habitat degradation in their wake. They have proved ineffective for Canada goose control
In the 1960s, biologists began restoration plans for the dwindling trumpeter swan populations in the continental United States. They collected eggs from trumpeter swans in Alaska and Canada, where populations were strong, then these eggs were hatched in captivity and the young trumpeters released to select sites in the swans’ former breeding range. Plans were drawn and updated for each of the population groups of swans—Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain and Interior. Egg introductions were largely in the historic breeding areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but habitat restoration in Illinois proved to be a vital piece of the restoration puzzle.
A 1997 plan for the Interior Population (IP) aimed to re-establish “‘at least 2,000 birds and 180 successful breeding pairs by 2001’ for the Mississippi and Central Flyways,” explained Illinois Department of Natural Resources Wetland Wildlife Program Manager Randy Smith. The goals were exceeded tenfold. “The  population estimate,” said Smith, “was over 27,000 IP swans … A formal statewide waterfowl survey conducted the first full week of January  documented 7,337 trumpeter swans wintering in Illinois.”
Part and parcel of restoring trumpeter swans (and other native waterfowl) is controlling the mute swan population. University of Illinois ornithologist Dr. Michael Patrick Ward commented that “the removal/control of mute swans will greatly help trumpeter swans to be not only a winter visitor but to establish a breeding population in the state.” The aggressive nature of mute swans, he explained, has given them a competitive edge. Removing this competition is a key factor in the success of trumpeters.
Lead fishing tackle is another challenge, noted Illinois Natural History Survey biologist Aaron Yetter. Trumpeters feed by dabbling—heads-down and bottoms-up. They can consume lead tackle along with vegetation from the substrate.
Management plans address these challenges, and biologists are optimistic for continued recovery of these magnificent birds. “The recovery of trumpeter swans is a great conservation success story,” said Smith. “Starting from a small number of reintroduced birds to now numbering more than 27,000 and counting, [this story] demonstrates the hard work of a variety of agencies, organization and individuals.”
When and where can you expect to witness these magnificent birds? November through March are prime months, as trumpeters migrate through the state and settle in for the winter. Writing about swans at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in west central Illinois, Master Naturalist Carla Rich Montez said, “you are likely to see trumpeter swans in nearly every season.” As trumpeter populations continue to thrive in Illinois and throughout the Midwest, sites such as Emiquon and other high-quality wetlands provide critical migration and wintering habitat and exceptional viewing opportunities. Perhaps one day trumpeters will also breed there.
No longer can we assume that any swan we see in Illinois is the grown-up Ugly Duckling. There’s an increasing chance that instead of spotting a mute swan, you’ll see the biggest swan of them all, the native trumpeter. The moral of the story? Concerted efforts to protect native wildlife can bring a species back from the brink. And that is something to trumpet about!
Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.