By the end of March, but in some years earlier, we hear the muffled musical whistles of the tundra swans calling as they migrate in large V’s of 60 to 80 or more through southeastern Minnesota. It’s a common sight in the metro, too.
Many flocks stop to rest on open water. They migrate by day and night, coming from their winter range on the Atlantic coast where they are most abundant between Maryland and North Carolina. Tundra swans breed on the seacoast mostly within the Arctic Circle. They will be seen and heard traveling over parts of northern Minnesota a bit later in spring.
When flying long distances, tundra swans fly in V-shaped wedges in the same manner as geese and for the same reason: The resistance of the air is less as each bird flies in the widening wake of its predecessor.
The leader has the hardest work to do as he or she “breaks trail,” but is relieved at intervals and drops back into the flock to rest. They fly with speed and power, their long necks stretched straight ahead and their feet back under their tails. Their wings beat slowly and regularly, as they fly at heights of 6,000 to 8,000 feet.
Trumpeter swans are the largest North American waterfowl, and tundra swans the next largest. The tundras are snow white with black feet and bills, and an adult’s black bill often shows a bright yellow spot at the base. They weigh from 10 to 19 pounds, stand 3 feet, and their wings span 7 feet. Trumpeter swans are all white, but lack the yellow spot at the base of their black bills. Their calls are more trumpet-like.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.