Ask Zimo: There are conservation concerns for trumpeter swans

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comDecember 12, 2013 

Q: I saw white swans at Island Park on Dec. 1. Do you know what kind they are?

MEG FEREDAY, via Facebook

A: They’re trumpeter swans, and what an incredible sight they are, no matter where you see them.

The birds you saw are part of the Rocky Mountain population, which nests in Alberta and other parts of Canada, and winter in the Island Park-Yellowstone area.

There also is a small nesting flock in the Yellowstone area, according to Idaho Fish and Game.

Swan watching can be fantastic in Eastern Idaho in winter. I remember getting great photos while cross-country skiing at Harriman State Park, north of Ashton. Use a long lens and don’t disturb the birds.

Trumpeter swans are “a species of greatest conservation need” in Idaho, which means that there is a need to protect their wintering habitat.

They need areas where they are free from disturbance during the winter and where they can find their food, which is a variety of aquatic plants.

The Eastern Idaho flock actually feeds on seed potatoes in farm fields before the snow falls. They then retreat to the rivers to find their natural food.

You can’t miss trumpeter swans. They have a wingspan of about 8 feet and weigh more than 20 pounds.

Some trumpeters make it down the Snake River into Southwest Idaho and can be seen along the Snake River. Fish and Game puts out a warning to waterfowl hunters not to mistake them for snow geese, which are much smaller and have black wingtips. There is no hunting season for swans. One was shot illegally near Star last winter.

By the way, I saw a bunch of swans at the headwaters of Brownlee Reservoir near Farewell Bend State Park earlier in the fall. I couldn’t get a close enough view to see what kind they were. I say that because tundra swans also migrate through Southwest Idaho.

It’s difficult to tell the difference, but trumpeters are larger than the tundras and have a longer bill. Trumpeters also lack the yellow spot on the side of the head that can be found on tundra swans.

You also can tell the difference by sounds. Trumpeters, well, sound like a trumpet. The “Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” has a cool way of putting it: The voice is “nasal honking like the French horn.”

Tundras have a whistling, hooting or kwoooing sound, depending on your interpretation. The book says distant flocks sound like baying hounds.

By the way, we have had mute swans in Treasure Valley. They are domesticated and non-native in Idaho.

You can tell them by a black bump over an orange bill.

When they escape into the wild, they compete with native species for food and habitat.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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