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Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus

The native tundra swan can be distinguished from an invasive mute swan by its black bill and straight neck.
The native tundra swan can be distinguished from an invasive mute swan by its black bill and straight neck.

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.

Appearance:

The tundra swan has a white body and long, slender neck held straight in the air. It has a black bill, often with a yellow spot at the base in front of the eye. It grows to about 4.5 feet with a wingspan of more than 5 feet; males tend to be slightly larger than females.

Habitat:

Tundra swans are found on shallow fresh and brackish waters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers, wetlands and marshes. They usually live and travel in flocks; some wintering flocks can be quite large.

Range:

The tundra swan migrates to the Bay region in late October and early November. In early spring, it migrates back to the Arctic tundra to breed and may be observed during migration in central Pennsylvania and other parts of the Bay watershed.

Feeding:

This bird eats seeds and bay grasses such as redhead grass, widgeon grass and sago pondweed. It feeds by submerging its head and neck underwater to reach its food, sometimes “tipping up” its tail in the process. It will also eat winter wheat and other grains in farm fields.

Predators:

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

Flight:

Tundra swans migrate in large V-shaped or ribbon-like flocks. Flocks are often heard before they can be seen. They are strong flyers and take flight by running across the water and slapping their wings on the surface.

Voice:

The tundra swan makes a high, whooping woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo.

Tundra Swan courtesy of Pamela C. Rasmussen/Avian Vocalizations Center

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Breeding occurs 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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