Montana Public Radio

'Field Notes:' What's Troubling Yellowstone's Trumpeters?

Jan 2, 2015

What native Montana bird can weigh up to 30 pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet? Here's a hint: it's not the bald eagle. These characteristics, in fact, belong to the trumpeter swan.

This unique bird, the largest waterfowl in North America, faced extinction a century ago in the United States, and would have vanished if not for the efforts of wildlife groups and government agencies. The total number of trumpeter swans has increased steadily since then. However, in certain areas of the western United States, populations are declining again. The trumpeter swan is an impressive and fascinating native Montana bird which may once again need our help.

Trumpeter swans are undoubtedly imposing, and can be up to 5 feet long, weigh 30 pounds and have an 8 foot wingspan. While juveniles are usually a dull gray, adults have stunning white plumage with black feet, legs and bills. As its name implies, the trumpeter swans call sounds uncannily like a trumpet.

These shy, skittish waterfowl can be found on freshwater lakes, ponds and marshes where they feed on aquatic vegetation. When feeding, trumpeters tip themselves upside down and straighten their long necks to reach submerged aquatic plants as well as fish eggs and small invertebrates.

At three or four years old, they pair-bond and remain faithful to the same mate for their entire lives — which can sometimes last over 25 years.

Trumpeter swan populations in North America began to decline around 1700 when Europeans arrived. In Europe at that time bird skins and quill pens were in high demand. Because of their large size and extraordinary feathers, trumpeter swans were the target of excessive market hunting. Soon after, trumpeter populations began to decline — a trend that only increased as recreational hunting and habitat loss took their toll.

In the 1930s conservation groups across North America teamed up to help save the trumpeter, of which only 69 were known to exist. Various projects across the country restored an increased breeding, wintering and wetland habitat. One of these important projects resulted in the creation of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana. As a result of these efforts, trumpeter populations rebounded and reached almost 35,000 swans by 2005.

Even so, one population of resident trumpeters has been declining over the last four decades. This population in Yellowstone National Park totaled only 10 residents in 2007. Little research has been conducted and the population continues to decline, perhaps due to a severe drought, harsh winters, habitat loss and isolation. Conservation groups and wildlife agencies are trying to help the Yellowstone trumpeters by establishing new populations in neighboring states like Montana. One of these groups, the Blackfoot Challenge, aims at conserving and enhancing wildlife and habitat around the Blackfoot Valley. It has released 125 swans in the Blackfoot Valley in the last nine years, while the Audubon Society has implemented a similar plan in the Madison Valley. The hope is that the isolated Yellowstone birds will connect and breed with individuals from these new trumpeter populations. As a result, the Yellowstone trumpeter swan population may increase.

The story of the trumpeter swan is often viewed as one of the greatest conservation successes of the last century. Despite the success, it is important to continue preserving trumpeter swan habitat and maintaining local populations. Only with the help and hard work of the public, conservation groups, and management agencies, will future generations be able to enjoy the beauty of this impressive elegant bird.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 11/18/18. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m. or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)