Picture of Grace and Beauty
Pictures of beautiful places will often times have a swan or two, gracefully floating in a stream or lake. Animals that depict both graceful movements and icons of peaceful times always bring us to think about the swan.
White swans are associated with peace, serenity and grace. The white swan comes in a variety of species, though each different to their native regions. The habitat of the white swan depends on the species and the area they are residing, however, the species do tend to search for the same components in their choice of habitat.
Introduction to the Trumpeter Swan
The trumpeter swan is a beautiful fowl, known by the pure white coloring of the body and head, juxtaposed black bills that lie flat and black legs that blend with the bill. The largest of the waterfowl in the United States, they display a bold red line that separates the upper and lower mouth. Their long necks enable them to bellow a deep trumpeting call that sounds like a deep tenored horn, with a bit of a squeal.
The trumpeter population is vegetarian. They search below the surface for plant leaves and stems and are able to rip up hidden roots and shoots hiding on the bottom of the lake. Trumpeter swans will feast among waterweed, sago pondweed, water milfoil and duck potato. New cygnets dine on water beetles, at least until they are five weeks of age. Cygnets add some smaller crustaceans to their meals as well. At five weeks, they have switched over to a complete vegetarian diet.
Due to the reduction in population of the trumpeter swan because of hunting, loss of habitat, power line collisions, illegal shooting, and lead poisoning, they have been returned to various areas in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ontario to save the species. There are plans to add the species along the Chesapeake Bay area as well, relocating the trumpeter to the east coast.
If we begin with the trumpeter swan, we find the Cygnus buccinators in the Pacific coastal region, with approximately 15,000 birds in population, that migrate southward toward the Columbia River region. The Rocky Mountain population of trumpeters, with a population of approximately 2,500 birds, flock together in two different groups. A flock that maintains the regional habitat hangs out around the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana and a Canadian flock joins them in the winter. The interior population of swans includes about 900 birds, which also houses the trumpeter swans east of the Rockies and is the result of thirty years of reintroducing the birds to the area.
The summer finds the swans swimming in the swamps, marshes and shallow lakes that are forested. They tend to find the human visitors and their noisy tendencies rather annoying, so they vacate the area. During the winter months, swans need to follow food sources and dining through icy waters is impossible. Flying to areas that host sheltered coastlines and estuaries, they can create their perfect winter vacationing spots.
Trumpeter swans find their true love in a mate and stick with him or her for life. The courtship ritual begins at about two or three years of age. This process begins during the colder winter months. A graceful, synchronized swimming routine starts, with some bubbles blown in the water and a duet singing of songs. Once they have courted, the two will not begin to nest for a year or two.
Once they are “married”, the two newlyweds begin searching for their new home. While the ice is still on the ground, the couple will settle in to a good home and begin the claim staking process of ensuring the property is suitable. There are ample supplies of food, lush vegetation, privacy for the newlywed couple, and plenty of room for those early morning and late night landings. If all is well in the area, it will become the place to start a new family.
Settling in right away, the female chooses the perfect spot for her cynets. The two swans pitch right in to clean up the site from the previous year or build their own from scratch. The couple build a moat around the nest. This entails ripping plants out by the roots to clear the land. Nests are large and traditionally can be about 8 1/2 feet across, with a height of about 132 feet above the water’s surface.
After laying her eggs, the incubation period starts. Just how many babies can a white swan have? The female will lay between 3 to 9 eggs which are off-white in color. Incubation lasts about 34 days. The loyal mother will only leave the nest for a short period of time to eat, while the guarding father sits close by the nest to watch for predators.
When the cygnets have hatched, they begin to cry for parents with their fluffy pale gray down blowing in the wind. After a day or two of help from mom and dad, the kiddies are now off to find their own food. Both parents give the cygnets their freedom, however will stand close by to help them break off some of the harder vegetation. Quite a few of the babies will not last through the winter months and some may perish by parasites, not enough food or will be attacked by enemies. Families lose about half of the clutch each year.
With a brown coating, the feathers of the cygnets begin to fully appear. At about 15 weeks, the weight has picked up to approximately nineteen or more pounds. Flying lessons for the babies begin, as the weather is turning colder, lakes are freezing and they will need to get to warmer grounds.
The Mute Swan
Introduction to the Mute Swan
As we head further east in the United States, we meet the mute swan species. Coming from Europe in the 1800s, breeders thought
the swans would be a great addition to higher class home ponds. Swan populations grew by 500 in 1911 and another 1500 fowl came to the region in 1993. Mute swans exist in numbers at around 3,000 or so in current years. The Lower Hudson Valley and Long Island still have the largest flocks of mute swans, although Lake Ontario is gaining in population.
In their native environments of England, Wales and Ireland, the mute swan flows through the northern European region, east to Mongolia and has been introduced to North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as well.
In their home in Britain, Ireland and France, these birds can be found staying closer to their breeding areas and gather together as a flock during the winter to hang out on nearby waterways. In Germany and Scandinavia, they migrate from inland lakes where they breed to find better climates through colder, winter weather. The Baltic coast is one of the calmer regions in terms of weather, which is where the mute swans enjoy most of the wintery seasons. When milder winters give way, the flock will stay at home. If the icy waters aren’t too thick, they break up the icy film with their feet.
The cob, or male mute swan, will defend territory with a vicious attitude. The male will take up the threat posture, raising wings and pushing his feathers back, lowering his head and with powerful movements, struts through the water with a vengeance. Making his body appear large and powerful usually works with most intruders.
The adult mute swan is all white, while the young are born gray but develop a brown feathering that they have until their second year of life. The mute swan boasts a beautiful red-orange colored beak with a black fold of skin underneath.
The life span of the mute swan is approximately fifty years, however due to predators, severe weather and environmental dangers, they normally don’t make it past seven years in the wild.
As with the trumpeter swan, mute swans pair for life as well. The nest building ritual begins in March and April. Just like their relatives, the trumpeters, they will choose a home that is private, close to food and has plenty of room for take off and landing.
The male’s job in the coupling is to find reeds and sticks to build their family nest. The female is in charge of all the housekeeping and building tasks. She builds the nest in a platform shape or will remodel the nest from the prior year. The male is the one that very rarely vacates the nest and if he does, it will be for a short period of time. He watches over the family for protective purposes. A hissing sound coming from his long throat ensures he can scare away most predators. Charging at enemies and flapping wings insists he is serious about the protective plan for his family.
The female will lay five to eight large greenish-brown eggs, on an every other day cycle. Incubation is done mostly by the female, as soon as the last egg has arrived. The young will hatch traditionally at about the same time, after 36 days of incubation.
The cygnets are fluffy, with gray down, and will leave the nest immediately. Plants are yanked from the water around the area to allow the young ones to eat. Invertebrates are confiscated from their home on the surface of the water as an added protein side dish as well.
The babies remain at their parents’ sides until the following winter months. At this time, the brown plumage appears where the gray down used to reside. The babies turn white after their first year. They are ready to breed when they are three to four years of age.
The Tundra Swan
Introduction to the Tundra Swan
A true tundra nesting species, the tundra swan lives in northern Alaska all the way through to northern Canada. The tundra swan is rare to see in winter in Tennessee, however it is the most likely to be found in the state during warmer weather. Pacific and mid-Atlantic coasts are home to these birds, traditionally found alone or in much smaller groups.
A pure white-colored bird, the tundra swan has a pure black pair of legs and bill. At times, a yellow spot lies in front of the eye, in contrast to the black coloring surrounding it. Males and females look alike, however, the male is usually a bit larger. Baby tundra swans have dirty white feathers. With pinkish tones in their bills while young, cygnets eventually gain black legs and beaks as they grow into adults.
The voice of a tundra swan is a high-pitched barking sound. From a distance, the flocks create sounds that have a similarity to hounds baying.
While the trumpeter swan species are not normally seen in Tennessee, they are difficult to distinguish the species from the tundra swans because of similar appearances. The two can live in harmony alongside each other, although the tundra is the most common swan found in this area. If mute swans do appear, they are normally found in private ponds.
Tennessee is not the native land for the tundra swan. Most of them reside and nest in the Arctic tundra and can be spotted along the coastline. Migration in the winter months sends the birds into shallow lakes and slow moving rivers, or into flooded fields and coastal estuaries.
When the first visits of the trumpeter swan came about in the region, the tundra swans stayed apart from their new company. The tundra swans remained in the salt water regions while the trumpeters preferred the fresh water environment. The combination of both species can be found throughout the region, in both water environments in more recent years.
The tundra species normally consumes invertebrates and aquatic vegetation underneath the waterline, however, the declines of the food have created a shift in the winter to mostly grains and cultivated tubers left in the farming fields. In summer, however, they eat the new shoots, tubers and seeds.
Tundra swans usually set the nesting areas up by a lake or open bodies of water. The nests are created by both the male and female swan and they usually consist of mounds of plant materials. An indentation in the middle of the nest will accommodate the female’s nesting habits. If the nest is in good shape after a year, the couple will return to the same spot to lay more eggs.
Females lay about 4 to 5 eggs at a time. The male helps during the incubation period as well so both can attend to their own feeding needs. Incubation time is approximately 30 days. After hatching, the cygnets follow the parents, who lead them to food sources where they can feed themselves. Flying is a trick learned at 2 to 3 months of age.
Which Swan is in Your Region?
When asked the question, “What is the habitat of the white swan?”, now you can honestly say that it depends on which region you are in. White swans come in the same color, the bill and leg coloring can be different.
White swans are still the definition of grace, beauty and awe. Looking at the magnificent waterfowl, you can’t help but notice how quietly they glide through water almost as if to show off their elegant moves. Most of the species have the same habits of breeding, eating and migratory practices through the colder weather, but they all contain differences as well.
The swan population, in most regions, are due to fail if the habitats continue to go the way they are. Human damage, hunting of the swan, environmental poisons and other components create a harmful or deadly habitat for the swan and other wildlife. Protection programs are working, we need to help the environment by being mindful of habitat dangers we inflict.
The next time you come across the local swans in a pond near you, try to name which species it is, then sit back and enjoy the relaxing pond show of some of the most graceful birds you will ever see again.
- Image: Thermos, “Mute Swan in Natural Habitat at the Time of Sunrise”, under CC BY-SA 2.5
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Friends of the National Zoo, “Facts Sheets, Trumpeter Swan”
- Image: Ryszawa, Pawel, “Tundra Swan in Warsaw Zoo” under CC BY-SA 3.0
- Seattle Audubon Society, BirdWeb, “Tundra Swan”
- People’s Trust for the Environment, “Swan (Mute)”
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, “Mute Swan: History in New York”
- Image: Mdf, “Trumpeter Swan - Bond Head, Ontario Canada”, under CC BY-SA 3.0 license
- Image: Mav, “Trumpeter Swans in Grand Teton National Park”, under Public Domain and NPS Copyright Policy
- Image: Boxley, Paul, “A Swan in the Pond in the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh” under CC BY-SA 2.0
- Tennessee’s Watchable Wildlife, “Tundra Swan”