A Field Guide to Swans

What swans live in North America besides the tundra swan?

The mute swan is an exotic breed introduced from Europe in the 1800s to grace ponds in parks. It's now found in eastern parts of the United States. It is England's Royal Swan and the inspiration for Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen's "Ugly Duckling" (which, if you remember the story, is not a duck at all). It has an orange bill and a black knob in front of its eyes. When it swims, it holds its neck in a graceful S-curve and may arch its wings. (The tundra and trumpeter swans hold their necks erect). The mute swan is usually silent, but when bothered it will "bark" and make hissing sounds. It does not migrate.

The trumpeter swan is native to the Midwest, the Pacific Coast, Canada, and central Alaska. The trumpeter is the largest swan in the world: It can grow to have a wingspan of up to eight feet.

It's difficult to tell a trumpeter from a whistling (tundra) swan in the field except by its call: The trumpeter's call is lower in pitch than the tundra swan's, it is also far-reaching, and very loud. Its neck is very long - twice the length of its body. It also migrates.

All North American swans are named for their calls. The mute for its almost silent voice; the trumpeter for its deep, trumpet-like call; the whistling swan for its high-pitched, whistling hoot, or "swan song."

All swans have short legs and therefore can't get around easily on land. By contrast, geese are longer-legged and can walk and run quite well on land.

Swan glossary:

A group of swans is a flock, but a group of geese is a gaggle. A female adult swan is a "pen"; a male is a "cob." Young swans are "cygnets."

Swan facts:

* Swans' favorite winter foods in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland are wild celery, widgeon grass, eelgrass, foxtail grass, and mollusks.

* The swans eat by plunging their heads and long necks into the water. They have the longest necks of any waterfowl. Adults frequently paddle to stir up the water to bring submerged plants to the surface for their young to eat.

* Three-quarters of all swans, ducks, and geese are born and raised in the protected northern wetlands of Canada. Of the swans, the tundra is by far the most common.

* Swans may live up to 25 years in the wild.

* Swans nest one pair per square mile along the Arctic coastal strip. Nests are built by both parents at the water's edge. They are made of mosses, sedges, and dried grasses, and may be reused year after year by the same pair. (Tundra swans usually mate for life.)

* The adult offspring of a swan pair, up to six of them, in fact, may remain with their parents for two or three years.

* A baby swan or cygnet may ride on a parent's backs before it has grown its flight feathers.

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