Maryland Birds

Tundra Swan
(Cygnus columbianus)


Description & Range:

There are two populations of tundra swans recognized in North America: eastern and western. The Eastern population winters on the Atlantic Coast in the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland and North Carolina. These swans later travel to the Arctic tundra areas from the Seward Peninsula of Alaska, east to Hudson Bay and Baffin Island to nest. In contrast, the Western population winters on the Pacific Slope, mainly in California.

The plumage of adult Tundra swans is completely white, though their heads and necks are often stained a rusty color from iron-rich foods encountered in marsh soils during feeding. Their legs, feet and beak are black and they have a distinctive yellow mark close to the eyes. Both sexes are identical in appearance, but males typically are larger. The Tundra swan is smaller than the uncommon trumpeter swan, but it is difficult to separate them in the field.


Tundra swans breeds near shallow pools, lakes and slow-flowing rivers with emergent vegetation and pondweeds connected to moist, low-lying sedge-grass or moss-lichen Arctic tundra. Swans rarely nests in shrub tundra, and generally avoids forested areas. When migrating, they frequent shallow ponds, lakes, reservoirs, riverine marshes, shallow saline lagoons and sheltered coastal bays and estuaries. During the winter, Tundra Swans inhabit brackish and freshwater marshes, rivers, lakes, ponds and shallow tidal estuarine areas with adjacent agricultural fields. Calfpasture Cove at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge near Rock Hall and the waste water treatment ponds near Hurlock are favorite wintering sites in Maryland.


Tundra swans feed on aquatic plants found in shallow water. To get their food from underwater, the swans tip their bodies and extend their long neck and head into the water. They barely ever dive all the way in. They primarily feed on widgeon grass, sago and clasping leaf pondweeds and wild celery, but also utilize waste grain (corn and soybeans) and winter wheat shoots. During the winter, Tundra swans may also eat invertebrates such as mollusks (e.g., clams), amphipods and polycheate worms on tidal mudflats prior to migration.

USGS Biologist Dan Rizzolo measures the bill length on a tundra swan, prior to banding and avian influenza sampling, photo by DoReproduction:

Tundra swans breed throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra from Bristol Bay, Alaska, north along the Bering Sea coast, the Arctic Ocean east to Baffin Island, and south to the northwest coast of Quebec. Their nests are usually built on points or hummocks close to a tundra pond or lake, and those in favorable locations often reuse the same area from year to year. On average, females hatch three to five eggs and sit on them until they hatch, usually 32 days. Male tundra swans don’t help with incubation, but they stay close to the nest and guard against any predators, such as foxes, wolves, bears, weasels and golden eagles.



The Tundra swan's call is high-pitched and reminiscent of snow geese, while the trumpeter swan's call is louder and has been compared to the sound of a French horn.


Tundra swans begin leaving their winter habitat after the first spring thaw. Tundra swans from Chesapeake Bay cross Pennsylvania to Lake Erie, from the first week in March into early April and provide a striking spectacle when several thousand make a stop near Long Point on Lake Erie.