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Birds

Swans

Photo: Ryan Askren
Pair of trumpeter swans swimming together.

Description & Identification

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor): The mute swan is not native to Illinois. They are large white birds, with males weighing between 20 to 25 pounds and females weighing 16 to 20 pounds. The adults are easily identified by their orange bills with a black knob at the base. Mute swans have an S-shape to their necks and tend to hold their wings up and slightly out from their bodies while swimming. Juveniles can have gray or white feathers, and their bills are gray, pinkish and then orange as the birds mature.

Photo: Yerpo, GFDL & CC BY-SA 3.0
Adult male mute swan swimming on the water.
Adult mute swans have orange bills with a black knob at the base.

Trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator)Trumpeter swan populations declined dramatically during settlement and they were extirpated from Illinois by 1900. Under Endangered Species Act protection and following reintroduction efforts, these swans are once again becoming abundant and are recolonizing their historic breeding range. Several records of breeding trumpeter swans have occurred in Illinois in recent years, with more discovered each year. Direct competition for breeding sites with non-native mute swans is thought to be limiting trumpeter swan population expansion in several Midwestern states, including Illinois.

The trumpeter swan is the largest native swan. These large white birds are the heaviest fliers, with adult males weighing more than 25 pounds. They tend to swim and fly with their necks held straight. They have black, wedge-shaped bills and black legs. Juveniles are gray with white highlights and their black bills have a pink center.

Photo: Alan Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com, CC BY-SA 2.5
Trumpeter swans can be distinguished from mute swans by the difference in their bills. Adult trumpeter swans have a black bill and mute swans have an orange bill.
Trumpeter swans have a black, wedge-shaped bill.

Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus): Tundra swans are smaller than trumpeter or mute swans, weighing around 15 pounds. They have white feathers with black bills and feet. They have a spot of yellow on their face between their eyes and bill. Juveniles are tinged with gray on their feathers.

Photo: Ryan Askren
Tundra swans are smaller than trumpeter or mute swans. They have black bills with a yellow spot near the eye.
Tundra swans are smaller than trumpeter or mute swans and have a yellow patch on their face.

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Distribution & Abundance

Mute swan: Native to Eurasia, these birds were introduced to northeastern states in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They have since expanded their range to several eastern and Midwestern states as well as portions of the western U.S. and Canada. In areas where they are found in Illinois, they are often year-round residents. They can be locally common.

Trumpeter swan: These birds migrate through Illinois from mid-October through mid-April.

Tundra swan: These are arctic birds that migrate through northern Illinois from February to mid-April and from late October to early December.

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Behavior & Ecological Role

All three swans forage in fairly shallow water and will tip up like dabbling ducks, with their heads underwater to reach plants below the surface of the water. Both trumpeter and tundra swans swim with their necks straight, while the mute swan swims with their necks curved like an “S”.

Mute swans are more aggressive towards other swans, geese and ducks than the other two species of swans found in Illinois. They are also more aggressive towards people during the breeding season and may seasonally impact recreational areas used for swimming, fishing or boating.

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Diseases & Public Health

None of the swan species are considered a public health concern. However, mute swans can leave excessive amounts of feces which can negatively impact water quality and the land around ponds and lakes. Diseases that may potentially be transmitted to people through contact with mute swan feces include swimmer’s itch, salmonellosis, and E. coli infections.

While the number of swan-airplane strikes is very limited, they can do severe damage to aircraft due to their size.

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Habitat & Food

Mute swan: They are often found in city parks, rivers, lakes and ponds. They eat aquatic vegetation

Trumpeter swan: These swans prefer open habitats near shallow bodies of water. They can be found on large lakes and rivers, but will sometimes forage in agriculture fields.

Tundra swan: They can be found on coastal waters and some inland lakes or in agriculture fields when they migrate through Illinois.

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Reproduction & Longevity

Mute swan: These birds breed in northern Illinois and locations throughout west-central Illinois.

Trumpeter swan: Although Trumpeter swan populations had been extirpated from Illinois by 1900, under Endangered Species Act protection and following reintroduction efforts, these swans are once again becoming abundant. Several records of breeding Trumpeter swans have occurred in Illinois in recent years, with more discovered each year. Direct competition for breeding sites with non-native mute swans is thought to be limiting Trumpeter swan population expansion in several Midwestern states, including Illinois.

Tundra swan: Tundra swans do not breed in Illinois.

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Damage Prevention & Control Measures

Mute swans are the swans most likely to cause issues in Illinois. In cases where their numbers need to be reduced, the USDA-Wildlife Services has put together a guide to assist people dealing with nuisance mute swans.

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