North American Birds – Whistling Swan

(Olor columbianus)

Called also : AMERICAN SWAN

Length—55 inches, or a little under 5 feet.

Male and Female—Entire plumage white; usually a yellow spot between the ‘eyes and nostrils, but sometimes wanting; bill, legs, and feet black. Immature birds have some brownish and grayish washings on parts of their plumage.

Range—North America, nesting about the Arctic Ocean, and migrating in winter to our southern states and the Gulf of Mexico. Rare on the Atlantic coast north of Maryland; more abundant on the Pacific.

Season—Winter visitor and spring and autumn migrant, October to April.

It is impossible for one who has seen only the common mute swans floating about in the artificial lakes of our city parks, while happy children toss them bits of cake and crackers, to imagine the grandeur of a flock of the great whistlers in their wild state. Not far from Chicago such a flock was recently seen in its autumn migration, and as the huge birds rose from the lake into the air, it seemed as if an aerial regatta were being sailed overhead; the swans, each with a wing-spread of six or seven feet, moving like yachts under full sail in a mirage where water blended with sky and tricked one’s vision. The sight is among the most impressive in all nature. It is wonderful I

On the Pacific coast, in the interior, down the Mississippi to the gulf states, and up the Atlantic coast from Florida to the Chesapeake, the whistling swans wander between October and April, flying at the rate of one hundred miles an hour, it is estimated. Like many of their smaller relatives, they fly in wedge shaped flocks, with an experienced, clarion voiced veteran in the lead. Dr. Sharpless, who was the first to point out this species as distinct from the whooping or whistling swan of Europe, with which our early ornithologists confused it, says : ” Their notes are extremely varied, some closely resembling the deepest bass of the common tin horn, while others run through every modulation of false note of the French horn or clarionet.” The age of the bird is supposed to account for the difference in the voice. No one can mistake the notes for the product of any musical instrument, however. One unkind man in the south, who was wakened in the depth of night by the noisy trumpetings of a flock feeding in a lagoon near his home, was heard to remark that if the swan did not really sing just before its death, it really ought to die just after making that noise! The poets, from Homer to Tennyson, and not the scientists, are responsible for the story of the swan’s chanting its own dirge. These swans are particularly noisy when dressing their feathers, when feeding, and when flying, especially just after mounting from the water into the air, when they make loud demands each for its proper place in the V-shaped column. The Indians say that the swans follow in the wake of a flock of geese. Perhaps the Hudson Bay Fur Company, which has bought thousands of pounds of swan’s down from the Indians, best knows why there are so few flocks of swans left to follow the geese today.

Around the shores of lakes and islands in the Hudson Bay region, these swans return to nest in May; and gathering a mass of sticks and aquatic plants, pile them to a height of two feet or more, this down-lined nest being sometimes six feet across. In the labor of making it the male helps, for he is a far better mate and father than either a drake or a gander. From two to six rough, grayish eggs, over four inches long and nearly three inches wide, are laid in June, and ,not until after five weeks of close confinement on the nest can the proud mother lead her brood to water. At first the fledgelings are covered with a grayish brown down, which gradually changes into the white plumage that it takes twelve months to perfect. Young cygnets are counted a great delicacy by the epicures of Europe.

Had the prehistoric swans been content to nibble herbage on the banks of streams, instead of immersing their necks to probe the bottoms for mollusks, worms, and roots, doubtless their necks would have reached no abnormal length. One rarely sees a swan tipping after the manner of the river ducks, and never diving. To escape pursuit the swan, which is really very shy, will quickly distance a strong rower by swimming, yet with an ease and majesty of movement that suggests neither fright nor haste.

The Trumpeter Swan (Olor buccinator), an even larger species than the preceding, with no yellow on the fore part of its head, though elsewhere identical in plumage with the whistler, has a more western range, being rarely found east of the Mississippi. In habits the two great birds appear to be much the same, but the voice of the well-named trumpeter resounds with a power equalled only by the French horns blown by red-faced Germans at a Wagner opera.