A triumph of survival.

Around 1900, as far as most people knew, the trumpeter swan no longer existed. A native species to North America, it was once widespread from coast to coast but hunting for food and "skins" sold to Europe to be used for making powder puffs for women and feathers for hats and bedding took a big toll on populations (as did the usual loss of habitat due to human encroachment). Perhaps it was another passenger pigeon. Perhaps not.

It turned out that there were some isolated populations in mountain valleys in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Two nests were found in Yellowstone National Park in 1919 and there were close to seventy birds in the region in 1932. As it turns out, there were also small populations scattered in Alaska and Canada (possibly a couple thousand). In 1933, there were over seventy breeding pairs in Canada.

This wasn't the end of the story. In 1935, the United States government set up a refuge in Montana where they worked to save the species, restricting livestock grazing, providing food and protecting shelter. Predators were also controlled. By 1950, there was a population of 640 in the region. Programs to start new populations around the three state area were started, but despite all the work, there were declines in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1986, it had dropped to 392—this has been linked partly to the availability of winter food.

During the following two years, a combination of mild weather and increased grain availability (some by conservationists) caused the population to reach around 600 birds. But then it dropped again because of a harsh winter in 1988-1989, which led to the death of a hundred birds (the number includes ones that migrated from Canada). The population in the region was around 565 in 1989. Since then, not only has the population of trumpeter swans increased, but the range has, as well.

There are now as many as 1000 in western Canada (primarily the Yukon and Northwest Territories) and nearly 12,000 in Alaska. Some 500 are scattered in areas east of the Rocky Mountains—"transplanted" flocks. Though it had been considered for the endangered list at one time, the bird is not felt to be in any danger of extinction. On the other hand, some of the Midwest populations, partly because of the small sizes, are considered at risk (where the swan is actually more rare than the Bald Eagle). The trumpeter swan is considered endangered in Wisconsin and threatened in Michigan.

While not the "classic" swan of literature and art (that would be the mute swan), the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) has its own distinctions. The largest of the swans, it is also the largest waterfowl in North America. It is also a native to the continent, as opposed to the mute swan which was an import from Europe. Like other swans, as well as ducks and geese, the bird belongs to the Order Anseriformes (anser, Latin for "goose"). It is also of the Family Anatidae (anas, Latin for "duck")—subfamily Anserinae. "Buccinator" comes from the word "bucina," a Roman brass instrument.

Length (total): 1.4 to 2.6 m (4.6 to 8.5 feet)
Height (standing on the ground): 1.2 m (4 feet)
Wingspan: 1.9 to 2.45 m (6.2 to 8 feet)
Bill length: 10 to 23 cm (3.9 to 9 inches)
Weight: 7 to 14.5 kg (15.4 to 32 lb.)
weights of 15.9 (35 lb.) or higher have been recorded
There is some sexual dimorphism with the male being slightly larger than the female.

Named for a call that some think resembles a trumpet or French horn, the trumpeter swan is one of the two native species of swan in North America (the other being Cygnus columbianus or the tundra swan, once known as the whistling swan). The bird has all-white plumage and an all-black beak (there is a small red or salmon colored line on the edge of the lower bill). Unlike the mute swan (and the black swan), the trumpeter shares with all other species of the bird, the characteristic of not holding its neck in an S curve, but rather vertical. It also holds it beak flat instead of slightly angled toward the water. Its legs and feet are black.

Like the other species of swans, the trumpeter lives mostly on aquatic vegetation, using its long neck to reach below the surface (they do not dive) to uproot plants. This also enables it to coexist with other waterfowl without too much competition for food resources. They will also feed on grain and occasionally insects or other small invertebrates, snails, or fish. The bird is known to "pump" its feet up and down under water in order to free plants from the mud for easier consumption.

Mating season begins between April and May, when a pair builds a nest (as large as 1.8 m/6 feet in diameter). It is usually surrounded by water, making it safer from potential predators. Sometimes the nest is built out of collected vegetation and sometimes muskrat homes or even old beaver dams or lodges are used. The nest is then lined with down. The nesting site will often be reused in subsequent years.

The female (called the "pen") will lay an egg about every other day until she has laid between five and nine eggs. The pen incubates the eggs while the male (called the "cob") guards the nest from intruders. If the pen has to leave for food or grooming, the eggs are covered with plant matter to help maintain the temperature.

After about thirty-three days, the young (called "cygnets") hatch. They are covered by a greyish down and have yellow feet and legs. They cannot leave the nest for one to two days because they are unable to maintain their own body temperature. At that time, they will begin to feed and drink, at first concentrating on protein-rich food like small insects to insure quick growth. Regular feeding, on their own, takes place at about one to one and a half months.

At nine to ten weeks, the cygnets are fully feathered and about five weeks after they begin to fly. At that point they can already weigh 9 kg (20 lb.). They will stay with the parents for about a year before being driven off to join juvenile flocks. At about two years, they will begin looking for mates to bond with.

Trumpeter swans will pair off as early as their second year and begin nesting at their third (they do not nest the first year of pairing). Most do not nest until they are four to six years old. They do mate for life and can live twenty to thirty years—ages as high as thirty-five have been recorded in captivity but in the wild few live more than twelve years. Unlike the romanticised notion, if a mate dies, the swan will not pine to death but finds another partner. The bird will continue to use the same nesting area.

While strong conservation efforts and a resilient species has kept the trumpeter swan from dying out, there are dangers it faces (besides the obvious human encroachment or pollution). In Canada, there is some predation, but it is infrequent. One problem is poisoning from eating old lead shot in areas where hunting takes place or has in the past. Conservation efforts have made this less of a threat than it used to be. Another problem is that some hunters will mistake the trumpeter (which is protected and off limits) with the similar-looking snow goose (which is allowed to be hunted).

(Sources: www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/er/factsheets/birds/swan.htm, www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/hww-fap/swan/swan.html, www.taiga.net/swans/swanid.html, animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/cygnus/c._buccinator$narrative.html)

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