Driving home the other day, I was pleased to see a flock of Trumpeter Swans grazing the fields. They are the heaviest of all American birds, growing up to five feet long, with a wingspan up to 6½ feet. The largest numbers breed in Alaska and Western Canada.
Ninety years ago, it was feared that we had lost this magnificent bird from the lower 48 States – because of over-hunting, and also poisoning from lead shot. There seemed to be no more than 70 birds left – and these were found near Henrys Fork in Idaho. After 30 years of careful protection, the numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area had risen back to about 900. The pace of change has increased in recent years until it is now reckoned that there are nearly 7,000 in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana – almost all of which winter in eastern Idaho. That is why we are more likely to see them.
Trumpeter Swans are all white, except for their black beak. The black color extends to their eye making it appear like a mask. Their name is derived from their loud honking call which can be heard a long way off. The call is used as an alarm, and as part of their courting display, when the couple perform a duet. They may live as long as 24 years, and like other swans, they mate for life. They prefer pristine wetlands with a minimum of human disturbance, especially while breeding. Trumpeter Swans lay between three and six eggs, and both parents defend eggs and young aggressively.
Being water birds, their regular diet is aquatic plants, but the flocks we can see around here right now have made an interesting change in their winter behavior. They have moved away from the waterways and begun to feed in fields – both for winter wheat; and also for leftover potatoes. The farmers will not be happy about their wheat, but the potatoes are a good source of fuel for the birds as they migrate between seasons. Birds like these, from further north travel through Idaho on their migration to the Pacific coast. These birds mix with ours and may even cause over-crowding on our waterways – this is not a good thing as it makes it easier for any disease to spread; and naturalists work to encourage these visitors to move on.
The Trumpeter Swan is bigger than two others we might see. The Tundra Swan might be easily confused. It is much smaller than the Trumpeter Swan – although you might need to see both together to work this out. Their beaks are also black, but it doesn’t encircle the eye. The surest way to make the difference is to look for a small area of lemon yellow on the beak in front of the eye – this little patch is different in size from bird to bird; you would need a good look with binoculars to spot it in most cases.
We also have Mute Swans, but these are not native – I am used to them because they are the common swans of rivers, ponds and parks in the UK. They come between the Tundra and Trumpeter for size, with an orange beak. They were introduced into North America as ornamental birds for parks; but nobody told the birds not to spread into the wider environment. They have done this in some eastern states, and around Vancouver in British Columbia. We are unlikely to see any in the wild in Idaho. As with so many other introductions, the Mute Swan is not all good news – the aquatic plants they choose to eat in North America are not so firmly anchored as those they use in Britain and Europe, and unfortunately they cause a lot of damage by pulling things up. Among other things, their presence is making it more difficult to bring Trumpeter Swans back where they used to be.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that Spring is right around the corner. These birds are able to cope with the cold, and some stick around all winter. They move around depending on where the deepest snow is. The fact that our fields have some bare patches is probably what drew them to the area. If, like me, you are wishing hopelessly for Spring, for any little sign of it, the presence of the geese and swans is not as comforting as I hoped.
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