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For information on swans, contact:
Trenton Rohrer
Assistant Migratory game bird ecologist
608-261-6458

Swans in Wisconsin

Three swan species can be found in Wisconsin - trumpeter, tundra and the non-native mute swan. Trumpeter and tundra swans are migratory species whereas mute swans are an introduced non-native species that tend to remain year round. All have white plumage as adults and appear similar from a distance. There are, however, several physical characteristics by which these three species can be distinguished.

trumpeter swan
Trumpeter swan ©Melissa Clark

tundra swan
Tundra swan ©John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS

mute swan
Mute swan ©Everett Hanna


Trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator): The trumpeter swan is a migratory bird that nests in Wisconsin. Adults are all white, have a black bill with a narrow, salmon-red stripe along the base of the lower bill, the bill strip is often not visible in the field, however. Trumpeter swans were extirpated from Wisconsin in the late 1880s but were re-introduced in 1989 with so much success that the Trumpeter swan was removed from the Wisconsin endangered species list in 2009.

Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus): The tundra swan is the other large native white swan in North America and is often confused with the less common trumpeter. The tundra is slightly smaller than the trumpeter however both species are white with a black bill. A notable difference between the two is the distinct yellow spot in front of the eye found on about 80 percent of tundra swans. The best way to distinguish the two species is by their calls. The trumpeter call sounds deep and trumpet-like while the tundra swan has a high-pitched, quavering call.

Mute swan (Cyguns olor): Mute swans are a non-native species to North America and were introduced by European immigrants. Mute swans are an undesired species, however, they are not hunted, but instead managed to control numbers from increasing. Close to a trumpeter in size, the mute swan is easily distinguished from other swans by its orange bill and prominent black fleshy knob extending from the base of the bill to the forehead.

Tundra swan

Tundra swans are separated into two populations, an eastern and a western. The eastern population migrates from their arctic breeding grounds through the Great Lakes and Wisconsin on their way to the east coast.

  • Wingspan: 6-7 feet long
  • Height: 3 feet high
  • Weight: 13-20 pounds/average

Description

The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) is a large bodied arctic nesting waterfowl species that weighs 13 to 20 pounds on average and stands approximately 3 feet tall. Tundra swans have all white plumage with a black bill and often a yellow marking in front of the eye which is used to help differentiate them from trumpeter swans. Both male and female are identical in appearance. However, the male is often larger in size. A tundra swan's call is high pitched and is compared to that of a snow goose where as a trumpeter swan's call is a lower more resonant call, likened to the sound of a trumpet.

Feeding and life history

Tundra swans feed primarily on seeds, stems and tubers of aquatic vegetation in shallow fresh or brackish waters; however, they also feed on agricultural waste grain and crops in migration and on wintering grounds. Tundra swans nest in northern arctic habitats preferring to nest on points, islands and hummocks found near lakes, ponds or marshes. The average clutch size for adult tundra swans is two to five eggs with hatching in early July.

Distribution

There are two distinct populations of tundra swans in North America as defined by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an eastern and western population. Both populations breed in the northern arctic regions of Canada and Alaska. The eastern population migrates through Wisconsin. They migrate south from the Canadian Arctic and Alaska through central Canada and the northern United States in a generally south-south east direction, moving through the Great Lakes and finally wintering in North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.

Population

The eastern population of tundra swans exceeds 100,000 as measured by the mid-winter waterfowl survey and has recently been surveyed in Wisconsin on the Mississippi River with peak fall counts of 40,000, 23,000 and 70,000 in the last three years. The mid-winter estimates show a stable population over the last ten years. Viewing the significant concentrations in the Upper Mississippi River have become an increasingly popular fall recreational activity. The major concentrations of tundra swans roost in areas of the national wildlife refuge which are closed to hunting and have reduced boat traffic.

Management

The eastern population (EP) of tundra swans is managed under a cooperative management plan first developed in 1982. The management plan identifies goals, management actions, methods to monitoring the populations and future research needs. The development of the management plan and its implementation is a cooperative effort among the state, provincial and federal wildlife agencies in Canada and the United States. The primary management goal is "to maintain EP tundra swans at a population level that will provide optimum resource benefits for society consistent with habitat availability and international treaties." The specific population objective is to maintain at least 80,000 EP tundra swans based on a three-year average population index from the mid-winter survey conducted across the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. This population objective establishes the level necessary to satisfy public demand for the enjoyment and use of this resource, reduction in crop depredation issues, the desire to maintain distributions of EP swans throughout their range and to support both subsistence and sport harvest.

Current status

The plan includes a harvest management strategy which provides guidelines for how the harvest of tundra swans will be managed across their range. Tundra swans are not a hunted species in Wisconsin, however, EP tundra swans have been hunted since 1983 and are currently hunted in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina and Virginia. There are 9,600 harvest permits shared between the five states that currently hunt them and the average annual harvest reported in the plan is about 3,300 swans. Each state is allocated a portion of the 9,600 permits and then these permits are distributed via a lottery system to hunters within that state.

The Eastern Population Tundra Swan Management Plan calls for a state with a hunting season to "avoid harvest of trumpeter swans by temporal and/or spatial considerations when possible", with the goal to avoid accidental harvest of trumpeters. "However, EP tundra swan seasons should not be precluded by the possibility of an occasional trumpeter swan being shot. This policy is consistent with the Interior Population Trumpeter Swan Management Plan, Western Population Tundra Swan Management Plan, Rocky Mountain Trumpeter Swan Management Plan and has been endorsed by The Trumpeter Swan Society, the Central Flyway Council and the Pacific Flyway Council."

Rule change process

There have been public discussions about a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin. In order to facilitate this discussion we have outlined below the process necessary for establishment of a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin, however, the DNR has taken no position on whether or not this process should be initiated. According to the current management plan for the EP tundra swans, status of trumpeter swans and state/federal laws; there are several steps that would need to be taken to implement a tundra swan hunting season in Wisconsin.

  1. The EP tundra management plan requires a state seeking to hunt tundra swans to have a quota based hunting season with a limited number of special permits issued to hunters.
  2. According to Wisconsin state law, a quota based hunt as described in the EP tundra swan plan would have to first be established by the state legislature and authorize the Department of Natural Resources to develop a state tundra swan hunting season.
  3. Then the DNR would need to develop a draft hunt plan specifying season timing, length, zones, permit system and methods to reduce the chance of a hunter shooting a trumpeter swan. This draft season would have to be submitted through the flyway council system (regional groups of state/provincial agencies) for review and approval. As part of this process, Wisconsin would negotiate a share of the 9,600 tundra swan hunting permits currently being used by the five existing hunt states. If Wisconsin became a swan hunting state, the number of tundra swan hunt permits for the entire EP would not increase but be redistributed among the hunt states.
  4. As a part of the flyway process the US Fish and Wildlife Service would also review the plan and provide comment.
  5. The department would then develop a specific tundra swan hunting season proposal that would move through the state administrative rule process and receive public input. The proposal may then be modified based on public input and further state review but cannot be more liberal than the flyway approved hunting plan.

Following the public input process, a tundra swan hunting season would be recommended by staff to the Secretary's office and the Natural Resources Board for review and approval. Following state approval, a final hunting season proposal would be submitted to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for final approval. The entire process listed above would take three to five years to complete.

Mute swan

Mute swans are a feral species of swan that were introduced by European immigrants and now have large populations on the east coast and in the Great Lakes. They are aggressive toward both people and other wildlife and outcompete native species for resources.

  • Wingspan: 7-8 feet long
  • Height: 4 feet high
  • Weight: 25-30 pounds/average

Overview

The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is a species of swan that is non-native to North America. This swan is native to Eurasia and was introduced into North America in the late 1800s by European immigrants seeking to add a familiar wildlife species to their gardens and ponds. As with many introduced species; the mute swan has established feral populations which continue to expand westward across North America competing with native wildlife and negatively impacting aquatic vegetation. The mute swan is not federally protected and considered an invasive species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Description

Mute swans stand between 4.5 and 5.5 feet tall and weigh 25-30 pounds. Both sexes have all white plumage and a distinctive orange bill with a black nob which is the primary identification characteristic that helps to separate this species from the two native swan species which have an all black bill. Mute swans get their name because they are less vocal compared to trumpeter and tundra swans.

Feeding and life history

Mute swans primarily forage on submerged aquatic vegetation and may forage up to depths of 4 feet. Mute swans often uproot the entire plant and disturb more vegetation than they can consume causing damage to aquatic habitats used by other species. Mute swans prefer to nest on a large mound of aquatic vegetation surrounded by grasses and rushes near pounds, lakes or wetlands. The average clutch size is six eggs but may range up to 11 and usually hatch in early June.

Distribution

Mute swans were introduced in the Atlantic coast states but have established feral populations in all four flyways. In the Mississippi Flyway at least 9 of 17 states or provinces have feral mutes. The majority of mute swans in the Mississippi Flyway occur in Michigan and Ontario. Mute swans continue to expand into Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Mute swans are relatively sedentary and their nesting territories small compared to native North American swans. They are non-migratory but will move regionally to molt or in winter. Feral breeding mute swans numbering in the dozens are located primarily in southeast Wisconsin and adjacent to breeding pairs in northeast Illinois.

Population

In 1997 an estimated 18,000 mute swans were present in North America with most being in the Atlantic Flyway. Since then the population has increased in distribution but growth in some areas is being controlled via active management efforts. Mid-winter inventories in the Mississippi Flyway indicate an average annual increase of 10 percent during 1991-2000. The mute swan population in Ontario has grown 16 percent per year during the last 25 years reaching more than 3,000 in 2011. Michigan's spring breeding waterfowl surveys have shown a nine to ten percent annual increase of mute swans since 1949, to more than 15,000 in 2011. Larger numbers of mute swans in the 100s are seasonally observed in northeast Wisconsin and appear to be movements of birds from nearby Michigan waters.

Management

As a non-native invasive species, management activities revolve primarily around documenting negative impacts and monitoring and reducing the population with active control efforts. Mute swans can alter plant communities and compete with native wildlife for food and breeding areas. They aggressively defend their nesting territories against other wildlife such as native swans, loons, Canada geese, ducks and other white water-birds. They sometimes kill other birds and their young. People working or recreating on waterways have been attacked by mute swans, sometimes resulting in personal injury and death.

Current status

Control efforts by state and provincial agencies vary by jurisdiction and have changed over time. They involve oiling eggs to prevent hatching, removing or destroying nests and sometimes direct removal of adult birds. In eastern states where the mute swan populations are higher, control efforts have been more extensive. Maryland has an active mute swan control program according to a state management plan and New York State recently completed a management plan as well. Control programs are sometimes controversial because of the aesthetic value some people place on this non-native species. In Wisconsin, the United States Department of Agriculture - APHIS - Wildlife Services manages mute swan control under a federal grant.

Swan comparison chart

Comparison chart

    Trumpeter swan Tundra swan Mute swan
Origin Native to the northern U.S. Native to the U.S. Not native to the U.S.
Population 10,000 in Great Lakes Region (2,000 in WI) Population exceeds 100,000 Several hundred in WI
Status Special concern species Protected species Invasive species
Wingspan 7-8 feet 6-7 feet 7-8 feet
Weight 21-30 pounds 13-20 pounds 25-30 pounds
Height 4 feet 3 feet 4 feet
Unique trait Often has a red border on lower mandible. Eye indistinct from bill. Often has a yellow spot in front of eye. Eye distinct from bill. Distinct black knob.
Bill Broad, flat black bill with fine tooth-like serrations along the edges. Black Orange
Profile/posture Straight, sloping profile with bill is heavy and somewhat wedge-shaped in proportion to its large angular head. Holds neck erect. Curving profile with bill is slightly dish-shaped or conclave and is small in proportion to its smoothly rounded head. Holds neck erect. Arches wings over their backs and position their necks in a graceful "S" curve with the bill pointed downward.
Voice Resonant, deep and loud, sonorous and trumpetlike. High pitched, often quavering OO-OO-OO, WHO-HO, or variations. Often silent, but may hiss, grunt, or snort at low volume.
Status Restored nesting population in WI. WI Status: Species of Special Concern Arctic nesting species that migrates through WI. Federal Status: Hunted in 5 states. Non-native introduced species. WI Status: Control population through management efforts.
Last revised: Tuesday June 06 2017