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Bird of the Month: Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan          Cygnus columbianus

By Andy McCormick



Length  49”   Wingspan  75”   

Weight  13.7 lb (6,200 g)    

AOU Alpha Code TUSW


For the second winter in a row Tundra Swans are being seen at Newcastle Beach Park in Bellevue, WA.


Formerly Whistling Swan

Many birders still call the Tundra Swan the Whistling Swan (C. c. columbianus), which is actually the North American subspecies of Tundra Swan. Meriwether Lewis heard the whistling sound of its wings and gave this bird the name Whistling Swan. Most taxonomists consider it conspecific with the Eurasian subspecies known as Bewick’s Swan (C.c.bewickii). The two birds were once considered separate species, but they were lumped into one, and the name was changed to Tundra Swan for both subspecies. However, not all taxonomists agree, and many people like to retain the original names. 

The genus name Cygnus, is from the Latin cycnus, a swan. The species epithet is from Columbia, relating to the Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark found this type of swan. Its summer range includes the tundra and it is named for that region (Holloway).  Trumpeter Swan


Smaller than Trumpeter Swan

The Tundra Swan can be distinguished from the larger Trumpeter Swan by its size and other traits. Most Tundra Swans have a yellow mark on the bill in front of and below the eye. Its call is a kloo or kwoo with a barking quality, which from a distance has the sound of baying hounds. It is higher pitched than the call of the Trumpeter Swan (Sibley). 


Widespread Arctic Breeder

Tundra Swans are the most widespread swan in North America. They arrive on their Arctic breeding grounds in April or early May, where the swans build a nest cooperatively. They stand at the nest site and stretch their necks either forward or to the side and pull plant material toward them, and place it at their feet. Once enough material has been gathered, the female scratches and scrapes the material with her feet to widen and deepen the bowl-shaped depression in the nest (Limpert and Earnst).

Usually 4-5 creamy white eggs are deposited in the nest. The female does about three quarters of the incubation, and the male does the rest. The eggs hatch in about a month and the parents lead them to feeding sites in the water. The young fledge in 2-3 months and stay with the adults through the first winter (Kaufman).


A Growing Population

The population of Tundra Swans has grown over the past 35 years, probably because this species has been successful in adapting to human activity and moved from foraging on water plants to eating residual grains in fields after harvest. The population is stable, and a limited hunting season is managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The Western and Eastern populations are managed separately based on their respective wintering locations (Limpert and Earnst). 

Hunting has been justified due to the population increases, concern about damage to agricultural crops, and to provide a trophy hunting experience. It has been criticized because little substantiation of serious crop damage has been found, Tundra Swans are protected in other countries, and the ethics of trophy hunting have been questioned (Limpert and Earnst).


You can see a short video of the Tundra Swan’s wing flapping and loud calling display at the Macaulay Library 

Trumpeter Swan, Photo by Mick Thompson

References available upon request from

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