Loud, ‘Magnificent’ Trumpeter Swans Make Return to Lewis County


As Mary Oliver once wrote, the wild goose’s call is “harsh and exciting.”

The phrase also aptly described the fanfare of the trumpeter swan, which can be heard from miles away, as many Lewis County residents may have noticed over the weekend. Seeking dairy farm fields and wetlands, the swans, like clockwork, show up in late November and can be seen in the area through early March.

Over the weekend, swans appeared in droves on ponds along the Willapa Hills trail, off Pleasant Valley and Bunker Creek roads near Adna, along the fields beside Scheuber Road in Chehalis and could be seen soaring above Thanksgiving traffic on Interstate 5.

Margaret Smith, executive director of the Trumpeter Swan Society, headquartered in Minnesota, called them “magnificent birds.” Her Minnesota accent also fit perfectly with her description of how the society works with “swans all over the continent.” 

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest flying bird and the heaviest waterfowl native to North America. Watching the population in Western Washington over the years, they may seem like they’ve made a huge comeback. However, Smith said populations haven’t increased all that much. Instead, the birds are exploring new areas for the winter months.

“You can’t miss them because they’re huge and they’re white and they’re beautiful. They have a wingspan anywhere from 6 to 8 feet,” Smith said.

Most of the swans in Washington are migrants who breed and spend the summers in Alaska and British Columbia, Smith said. They fly south to escape extreme cold weather.

One threat to swan habitat in Washington has been the transformation of dairy, corn and potato farms into fruit and berry farms, Smith said. The society has worked with Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington Dairy Federation, to increase awareness on the benefits of dairy land for the swans. Gordon farms along the Chehalis River near Elma.

A contract with the society requires him to graze, burn or mow 35 acres of land each winter for swan habitat. His efforts also recently gave way to a family of wintering sandhill cranes, thought to be the farthest-northern wintering flock of the bird anywhere in the world.

“I think trumpeter swans are really fun to watch. Their behavior is just really fun to watch, they get into little fights and displays,” Smith said. “The families travel together.”

According to the Audubon Society, nesting pairs of the swans typically mate for life. 

Juvenile swans, called signets, can be told apart from their nearly all-white parents by their gray feathers, Smith said. In a field or pond with dozens or hundreds of swans, groups of three or four swans usually signify families. After breeding and raising the young over the spring and summer, the parents will stay with the signets for the first winter of their lives. 

That they all stay together also makes it easier to identify sick or injured swans, Smith said. If a swan is isolated for a long period of time, she said it’s likely to be ill. 

In Whatcom County, efforts to care for sick or injured swans go a long way — literally. After the Whatcom Humane Society rehabilitates a swan, the bird is marked with a tag around its neck. Last year, Smith said bird watchers reported seeing one of the tagged birds in North Pole Alaska. 

“That’s really cool. That gives feedback to the Whatcom Humane Society that (after they spend) all this time and money, (the swan) is able to fly successfully,” Smith said.

Bird watchers are encouraged to report tagged swans on the Trumpeter Swan Society website at https://www.trumpeterswansociety.org/welcome.html. To report a sick or injured swan, call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at 360-902-2936.