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Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus

The tundra swan is a large, white bird that visits the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers and wetlands from autumn through spring.


  • White body
  • Black bill, often with a yellow spot at the base in front of the eye
  • Long, slender neck held straight in the air
  • Grows to about 4.5 feet with a wingspan of more than 5 feet
  • Males tend to be slightly larger than females


  • Found on shallow fresh and brackish waters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers, wetlands and marshes
  • Usually lives and travels in flocks. Some wintering flocks can be quite large.


  • Migrates to the Bay region in late October and early November
  • In early spring, migrates back to the Arctic tundra to breed
  • May be observed during migration in central Pennsylvania and other parts of the Bay watershed


  • Eats seeds and bay grasses such as redhead grass, widgeon grass and sago pondweed
  • Feeds by submerging its head and neck underwater to reach its food, sometimes “tipping up” its tail in the process
  • Will also eat winter wheat and other grains in farm fields


  • Foxes, gulls and weasels prey on swan eggs and young


  • Migrates in large V-shaped or ribbon-like flocks
  • Strong flyers
  • Takes flight by running across the water and slapping its wings on the surface
  • Flocks are often heard before they can be seen


  • Makes a high, whooping woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo
Tundra Swan courtesy of Pamela C. Rasmussen/Avian Vocalizations Center

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Breeds during the summer in the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska
  • In autumn, adults and their young, called cygnets, fly south to the Bay region
  • Cygnets are as large as adults but are brownish-gray. They molt to white by late winter or early spring, when the swans return to the tundra to breed.

Other Facts:

  • Also known as the whistling swan
  • The most widespread swan in North America
  • One of only two native swan species in North America. The other native swan, the trumpeter swan, is a rare visitor to the Bay region.
  • Can be confused with the invasive mute swan. You can distinguish a tundra swan by its black bill and straight neck. Also, tundra swans are only found in the Bay region from late autumn through early spring, while mute swans live here year-round.
  • During winter, tundra swans sleep mostly on the water

Sources and Additional Information:


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