For the Birds Radio Program: Swans

Original Air Date: April 19, 1995

The largest and most beautiful of all waterfowl pass through the Northland every April. 3:24

Audio missing


April is the month when birders’ thoughts turn to water birds, and the most magnificent of all is the swan. Tundra Swans have been moving through the Northland for a few weeks now, and though we get only small numbers of them, the vision of even a couple of these impressive birds can warm our hearts enough to keep them beating through April sleet storms and cold weather. The swans themselves don’t seem to mind foul weather–they’re wearing a thick down coat under their elegant wet suit, and stay plenty warm swimming It the edge of the ice, unlike the birders shivering as they watch.

Tundra Swans winter in ponds and estuaries near and in Chesapeake Bay, west Texas, and California and Nevada, though isolated individuals and family groups can be found throughout the interior United States. They nest way, way up on the tundra in northernmost Canada and Alaska. The ones we see in Minnesota and Wisconsin are merely passing through, but their passage is one of the loveliest sights in the universe, and fortuitously timed to occur during what is usually the ugliest month of all. They seldom visit Lake Superior itself, but up to a few hundred can often be found in the St. Louis River in west Duluth or Allouez Bay on Wisconsin Point. Groups of up to 5,000 can be found from Fond du Lac to Green Bay Wisconsin in early April, many lingering until the 25th. Although in some years that many can be found in Minnesota, usual numbers tend to be closer to 50 or 100.

Swans are a symbol of eternal love and family values, and justifiably so. Many people feel disillusioned when they learn that few birds mate for life, and many don’t even maintain a relationship through a single nesting season. But swans court and fall in love and stay together throughout their lives, and appear to go through a period of genuine mourning if they lose their mate. Fidelity is part of a swan’s identity, and also its sense of family. Parents and young from previous seasons often join together in big family reunions during migration and winter, and many of the birds we see in a large flock are related to one another.

Swans are so beautiful that we seldom think of them in utilitarian terms, but early colonists and pioneers used their feathered skins for blankets and coats. “Swan down” and “swan skins” appeared as regular and lucrative items in the ledgers of Hudson’s Bay and other fur companies. A single bird could feed a family for days, but, though swans made a beautiful meal, they simply aren’t very tasty, and older birds have very tough meat. Ignorant hunters still mistake swans for Snow Geese, and they are legally hunted in some states, but fortunately are too wary to be killed in big numbers. It seems only right that a bird shouldn’t have to provide food for the stomach when it provides so much food for the soul.