Virginia.gov

Tundra Swan Trax


Tundra Swan Descriptions

Tundra swans are one of three species of swans that can be seen in Virginia. All three species look similar, however, there are distinctive physical and behavioral characteristics that can be used to differentiate between the three. Tundra swans (previously called whistling swan) are native to North America and are the most common swan in Virginia during the winter. Tundra swans have a black bill with a small yellow spot in front of the eye. Adult birds are all white except for their black legs and feet. Young birds are brownish-gray for their first 6 to 8 months with flesh-colored legs and a pinkish bill. They gradually replace this dark coloration with white plumage during the winter period and by spring they resemble adult birds. Tundra swans are the smallest of the three swan species weighing between 10-18 pounds, although large males can weigh over 20 pounds. Their wingspan is between 5-6 feet. They have a distinctive call described as a high-pitched "who-who-who", accentuated in the middle, that can be heard from a long distance away. Tundra swans undertake a long-distance migration from breeding grounds in the arctic to wintering areas along the Atlantic Coast. Most winter between Maryland and North Carolina. In Virginia, tundra swans spend the winter in the eastern part of the state in the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, along the Eastern Shore, and in the Back Bay to Chesapeake area. They start arriving in November, with peak numbers between 6,000-12,000 here in early January. They feed on aquatic vegetation and in agricultural fields on waste grain or small grain crops. Spring migration back north starts in late February and most swans have left Virginia by late March. They migrate up through the Great Lakes and make it back to their breeding area by late May. They nest in tundra areas of northern Canada and eastern Alaska.

Two other species of swans can be found in Virginia, the trumpeter swan and the mute swan. The trumpeter swan is the least common swan in Virginia. It is the largest swan in North America weighing 20-30 pounds with a wingspan up to 8 feet. It is similar in appearance to the tundra swan, but is much larger and lacks the small yellow spot that the tundra swan has on its bill. The trumpeter swan's call is deeper and more resonant than that of the tundra swan and has been described as sounding more like a trumpet or French horn. The trumpeter swan was a regular visitor to Virginia in colonial days. This swan was extirpated along the East Coast by commercial harvests and the millenary trade in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Efforts are underway to reintroduce trumpeter swans in a number of areas of the country including the Atlantic Flyway. The trumpeter swan population in North America currently numbers around 16,000 with most of these being found in the West and in Alaska.

The mute swan is an exotic species, native to Eurasia, which was introduced into North America 60-70 years ago. Mute swans are intermediate in size between tundra and trumpeter swans and weigh between 18-25 pounds. Mute swans have an orange bill as opposed to the black bill of the tundra and trumpeter swan. Mute swans often swim with their neck held in an S-curved position and hold their wings arched up over their backs. The neck of the tundra and trumpeter swans is generally held straight up and their wings lie flat on their backs. The mute swan is not migratory and spends both summer and winter in Virginia. Mute swans have adapted to living around people and can be found in parks, golf courses and private ponds. Mute swans have been nesting in Virginia for over twenty years and their numbers are increasing. These swans compete for food and habitats with our native waterfowl and can displace other native bird species such as shorebirds, terns and skimmers.