Picture walks: Three species of Michigan swans

A mute swan.

By Jeanne Church

Before taking up nature photography a few years ago, I thought that all big white birds, swans, were the same. They are not! We actually have three different swans here in Michigan: trumpeter swans, tundra swans, and mute swans. The trumpeters are the largest. The tundras are the most plentiful. The mutes are the most aggressive!

Trumpeter swans are our biggest native waterfowl with a wingspan of almost six feet and a weight of 25 pounds or more! They are one of the heaviest flying birds in the world! Beautiful and elegant looking creatures, trumpeter swans are a joy to see as they gracefully float across our local ponds, lakes, and rivers. If it weren’t for years and years of aggressive conservation efforts, though, these birds would now be extinct. From as far back as the 1600s, swans were hunted relentlessly for their feathers which were used to adorn women’s hats and to fashion writing quills. Trumpeter swans were also hunted for their skins, which were used for women’s powder puffs! Fortunately, they have made a tremendous comeback, but their existence continues to be threatened by human disturbance, lead poisoning, illegal shooting, habitat loss and pollution.

Tundra swans are North America’s most numerous swan species. Even though they are considerably smaller than trumpeter swans, the two birds are often difficult to tell apart, particularly from a distance. They are both completely white and both have black beaks. If you are fortunate enough to see these birds at close range, though, you might notice that tundra swans have yellow markings on their beaks below their eyes. The yellow markings vary in size and can sometimes be difficult to see, even if you are quite close. Another clue to their differences has to do with timing. During the summer months, you will not see tundra swans in Michigan. They head north to the far reaches of the Arctic for their breeding season.

Trumpeter swans and tundra swans are both native species. Mute swans, however, were introduced to North America from Europe in the mid-1800s to decorate our parks and zoos. Eventually, these captive swans escaped and established feral populations wherever they could. Their numbers grew quickly and ultimately threatened our native populations of swans as well as other species.

Mute swans are, unquestionably, elegant and exotic looking birds. With their long necks curved into an S shape and their wings raised slightly above their backs, mute swans are often associated with ballets, fairy tales, and love. Somewhat paradoxically, they are also considered the world’s most aggressive waterfowl! Mute swans will fiercely defend their territory, especially when guarding their chicks, and will drive out native waterfowl as well as other wetland creatures. They also have voracious appetites, consuming up to eight pounds of submerged aquatic vegetation every day, and removing much of the food and habitat needed by other creatures for survival.

It is also worth noting that mute swans have little or no fear of humans. They have been known to attack canoeists, kayakers, and pedestrians who wander too close to their nests or their chicks.

As a result of their aggressiveness, their propensity for displacing native species, and their quick destruction of aquatic habitat, many states have adopted measures to control the mute swan population. Although hunting of mute swans is not allowed, the DNR does issue permits to remove them and/or their nests and eggs. “Removal’ of swans means capturing them and having them euthanized using methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Not unexpectedly, these measures have often generated a great deal of public controversy!

It’s easy to confuse mute swans from trumpeter swans and tundra swans, so it’s important to know the difference. All three are big white birds, but only the mute swan has an orange beak!

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