The Arrival of the Swans Means Spring is Near

If you spend time at Marsh Lake’s M’Clintock Bay this week, you may see new visitors. At up to four-and-a-half feet tall, 35 pounds, with 8-foot wingspans, these visitors are hard to miss. Majestic swans: trumpeters arriving first, tundras shortly after. Both species are now in a holding pattern in this shallow bay as they await the breakup of ice on Northern lakes where they will soon raise new families. 

Yukoners never shy away from celebrating, and the arrival of our first migrants is no exception.

Swan Haven on M’Clintock Bay is having its 20th anniversary Celebration of Swans this week from April 12 to 20. Interpretive talks, displays, spotting scopes, and of course the largest waterfowl in North America will all be there. 

Upwards of 2,000 trumpeter swans will arrive this month, flying as family units in their well-known “V” formations. Some cover over 12,000 kilometres before their arrival, navigating using cues in the landscape below, but also likely using the sun, moon, stars, and earth’s magnetic field to find their way here. I often hear the trumpeter’s low resonating call as they fly overhead, before I see them.

The source of their announcement is a long windpipe that loops deep in their body cavity — a similar physical trait of another bird that we may hear next month, the sandhill crane. 

The trumpeters are a conservation success story.

Like the American bison, they were extirpated, which means extinct in particular geographic areas. In 1932, only 69 were known to remain. Hunted for their skins, feathers and meat, these large, low flying waterfowl were easy targets.

With extinction near, breeding and transplanting trumpeters to wildlife refuges across western North America became a priority.

Others were eventually found in Alaska and Canada’s North in the 1950’s and this helped increase the genetic diversity of the species. Today, there are about 45,000 trumpeter swans, most of which winter in several key locations, such as the Comox Valley, in southern B.C. 

At Swan Haven, these birds seek shallow water to graze on tubers and stems of aquatic plants, as well as aquatic insects

Watch for a few interesting traits and behaviours. They pair-bond for life and move in families, so see if you can determine who belongs to whom. Use the spotting scopes on the observation deck to look closely at their bills. The tundra swans have a yellow mark with a goose-like neck that extends from their chest. The trumpeter’s black bill lacks colour, and, if they’re on the water, they will likely fold their neck like a rubber hose resting it on their back, before extending; it looks like their necks come out of their backs.

If they are not feeding, watch for preening.

They have a gland near their rump that they squeeze with their bill to release oil, which they spread on their feathers; this oil keeps feathers waterproof, flexible, and inhibits growth of fungi and bacteria.

Having about 25,000 feathers to care for, they preen a lot. 

My bird checklist says they are a common resident in the spring. I think, however, that “common” isn’t quite the word I’d use: exotic, regal, majestic, and resplendent are far more appropriate. 

Roy Jantzen is an environmental educator, natural history professor, and adventure and eco-tourism specialist living in Whitehorse.  Any comments or thoughts contact [email protected]

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