by Frank Keim
If you’ve watched Trumpeter swans, there are two things you notice right from the get-go: their enormous size and their loud resonant call, which reminds me of, well, a trumpet.
Trumpeters are our largest and heaviest waterfowl, stretching up to almost six feet in length with a wingspan of almost seven feet, and males weighing more than 26 pounds. For comparison, they are twice the size of a Tundra swan. To get into the air takes a lumbering takeoff of at least 100 yards above a large open water runway. Although awkward on the ground because of short legs set behind their center of gravity, amazingly, they can walk more than a mile without stopping, even when traveling with their week-old young (called cygnets)!
Before their numbers plummeted in the 1930’s to less than a few hundred birds, it is almost certain that they were numerous in the Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. I am happy to report that they are making a comeback everywhere, including parts of the Delta, with numbers in North America that may now exceed 100,000.
These huge swans form pairs when they are two to four years old, but don’t actually nest until they are between four to seven years old. The pair stays together throughout the year, including migration when they mass in large flocks and travel south and north in V-shaped formations. The majority of the birds mate for life (up to 30 years), although some do switch mates over the course of their lives. Some males that lose their original mates, however, do not mate again.
But I’m ahead of myself.
They are among the first species of waterfowl to arrive (in April) on their Alaskan breeding grounds, and when they do, they usually get right down to the serious business of nesting. For like most other waterfowl they have already gone through their nuptial mating displays during the previous year, especially where they spend the winter. Some of these displays include, spreading and raising of their majestic wings by both male and female, wing quivering, head bobbing and trumpeting. They repeat these rituals even after reaching Alaska and during nest building, which can take up to a month. And they do the same year after year for the rest of their lives to refresh their bonds, much like many humans do with our own unique displays of affection.
Together, the pair builds its nests on top of a floating platform, such as a muskrat pushup or beaver lodge. The nest itself is a low mound of plant material several feet in diameter, with a depressed bowl in the middle where the eggs are deposited. The same nest may be used in following years.
An average of 4-6 creamy-white eggs are laid, although they soon become nest-stained due to the long incubation period of between 32-37 days. Both parents participate in nest duty, but the mother bird does most of the work while her mate patrols around the edges watching for large predators, such as bald eagles, which often are a major challenge for them. The swans have a unique way of “brooding” their eggs during incubation; they keep them warm by covering them with their webbed feet!
After the eggs hatch, the young are able to swim when less than a day old. Both mother and father birds tend their youngsters, leading them to food sources. They are such large birds that it takes the young up to four months to take off for the first time. During these four months they must eat a lot of rich food, including many insects and other small invertebrates during the first two weeks after hatching. Then they eat more of what their parents do, such as the stems, leaves and roots of aquatic plants like pondweed, sedges, reeds, wild celery, and many others.
Their scientific name, Cygnus buccinator, is from Latin and means “swan that trumpets.” We humans also have what’s called a buccinator muscle in our cheeks, used to blow a trumpet or other wind instrument, and to blow out candles during our birthdays.
The Yup’ik name, Caqulegpak, is actually used to describe both species of swan in Hooper Bay-Chevak and the Nunivak Island area in the LYK Delta, and literally means, “big animal with wings.” I suspect that before the disappearance of the Trumpeter from the Delta in the 1940’s, however, the word, Yaqulegpak,* (big bird) was a name used to describe the bird in most other parts of the Delta, too. That’s only a “Keim Theory,” however.
If you want to read a good book about a “voiceless” Trumpeter swan named Louis, read E.B. White’s, The Trumpet of the Swan. In it, Louis courted his girlfriend Serena by playing a trumpet!
*Yaqulek is a “synonym” for Caqulek, and is used in other parts of the Delta except Hooper Bay-Chevak and the Nunivak Island area to describe most waterfowl species and larger birds in general. Usage has changed the meaning of both names through time, however, to where now they also refer to an “angel.”