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Trumpeter Swan on Vancouver Island
Special thanks to Mike Yip at http://www.vancouverislandbirds.com

Trumpeter Swans and Eagles
Trumpeter Swans in flight
Trumpeter Swan in flight
Swans coming in for a landing
Trumpeter Swans in a group
Trumpeter Swan nesting

Trumpeter Swan

Cygnus buccinator

The trumpeter swan, once within 100 individuals of extinction, is a restoration success story, particularly on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. Of the 23,000 individuals in North America, an estimated 6,000 birds winter on the island, with a majority in the Comox Valley area. These birds can be seen feeding in farm fields and in the intertidal zone on the roots and rhizomes of the summer’s growth and while generally regarded as a beautiful and peaceful bird, as the population continues to grow, farmers are experiencing some economic loss as a result of the birds stripping the well established perennial grasses from the fields.


The trumpeter swan is a large, migratory bird with white plumage and a black bill and feet. Measuring around 150cm (beak to tail) and weighing up to 12 kg, they are considered the largest native North American bird and the largest species of waterfowl on the planet. They are migratory, with the Vancouver Island birds breeding and feeding in Alaska during the summer months, and moving south to Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley for the winter. They prefer to eat grasses, roots, and tubers from the intertidal and shallow ocean zone, and will also forage in farmer’s fields for food, especially in the winter.

Vancouver Island Range

Though there are wintering sites around the entire island near the coast, more than 50% of the island population of approximately 6,000 make the Comox Valley their winter home. Port Alberni also contains a local concentration of the animals. They arrive in early November, and can be seen gathering on fields and grassy areas near the water, where they move to forage at low tide. They spend the winter on the fields, and then leave in March, moving up to the Arctic to breed.

Though common now, the trumpeter swan was once completely extirpated from Vancouver Island, with only a few birds present on the BC coast. Slowly, as the population rebounded, the birds began to come back, with the first sightings occurring in the 1970’s. Since then, their range has expanded around the island, to almost any location with suitable habitat.

Major Threats

Historically, these birds were hunted for their feathers and skin, and it was this that forced them to near extinction. By 1933, the hunting of these animals was banned in order to facilitate restoration. Today, though illegal hunting undoubtedly occurs, the risk of decline from over-hunting remains minimal.

The major threat facing the trumpeter swan at the moment appears to be pollution. They are unusually susceptible to lead poisoning, with excessive lead consumption resulting in both adult mortality, and egg/chick loss. Like most birds, the swan will ingest small stones in order to facilitate food grinding in the gizzard, and as the swans winter in wetlands and areas where bird hunting is common, they can accumulate a significant amount of lead shot. This lead remains in the gizzard, damaging tissues and contaminating the animal and its eggs, often to the point of death. One study found that of all swans found dead in the wintering range, about 50% were dead due to lead poisoning. As a result, many areas have banned the use of lead shot, and cleanup efforts are under way.

Overall, the trumpeter swan is now classified as a species of “least concern” when it comes to conservation. Its recovery has been remarkably fast, and its holding power appears good. With continued preservation of their habitat, the trumpeter swans should have no problem continuing to live on Vancouver Island.

Why they are Important on Vancouver Island

Such a success story is rarely found in conservation and with the trumpeter swans as a hallmark in the history of species recovery, this animal holds special status on Vancouver Island. They attract tourists in the winter to view the birds, and events are held in many cities, including the Comox Valley’s weeklong Trumpeter Swan Festival, that provide an opportunity for economic benefits and community engagement.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.