Swans return to Washington

Trumpeter and tundra swans have once again returned to Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, and other western Washington counties

The swan scoop

Trumpeter swans that migrate to Washington originate from forested regions of Alaska and Canada’s western Yukon and northern British Columbia for the winter. They are the heaviest living bird in North America, with wingspans that can exceed 10-feet. They breed in shallow ponds, lakes, wetlands and rivers, with the largest numbers of breeding pairs in Alaska.

Tundra swans migrate to Washington from windswept tundra habitats of the Alaska Peninsula for the winter. Tundras are smaller than trumpeters, with wingspans up to six feet, and they have a noticeable yellow spot at the base of their eye.

Two trumpeter swans flying in northwest Washington.

Both species of swan can form long-term pairs and raise their young together, with young birds following the parents during the first year to important stopover and winter areas in search of food and places to rest. Their natural diets are made up of aquatic vegetation and underwater roots and tubers. They often eat with their heads submerged underwater.

However, with changes in the availability of their native habitats, current wintering habitat is supplemented by eating grasses and leftover agricultural crops like corn and potatoes.

Swan populations

Approximately 20,000 trumpeter and tundra swans migrate between November and April. Swans are an example of a long-lived waterfowl species, with several individuals documented to live more than 20 years. Through the year, about five to 15 percent of swans die from natural causes, and about two percent wintering in western Washington die from hitting power lines or ingesting lead shot or fishing weights.

To protect swan populations, there are no swan hunting seasons in Washington. The last Trumpeter swan hunting season was in 1918.

Swans eating leftover agricultural crops.

Reporting deceased or struggling swans

The more complicated problem for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists is lead shot ingestion. Lead shot has been banned in Washington and nationwide for waterfowl hunting since 1991.

But in certain circumstances, old spent lead shot pellets, referred to as “legacy lead”, rest in areas that are not covered by sedimentation or don’t sink out of reach where foraging swans may encounter the old pellets.

Swans can still pick up and ingest lead shot while foraging in shallow under water areas, in fields, and roosts where lead shot is present. WDFW and other agencies and organizations have been working since 2001 to locate sources of toxic lead and minimize potential exposure.

To combat swan collisions with power lines, Puget Sound Energy and Snohomish County PUD have installed power line reflectors, leading to a significant reduction in deaths. Unfortunately, collisions still occur with power lines and other objects when high winds or foggy conditions cause swans to fly at lower altitude as they travel between roosts and foraging fields.

Wildlife biologists, Puget Sound Energy employees, and volunteers from Northwest Swan Conservation Association work hard to respond to reports of sick, injured, and dead swans.

To report, call 360–466–0515. Leave a short, detailed message with your name, number, location, and the swan’s condition.

Swan spotting

Below are some places where WDFW staff suggest visiting for a chance to spot these large white birds while they’re here in Washington:

  • Skagit Wildlife Area — Fir Island Farms Game Reserve or Johnson/DeBays Game Reserve
  • Wiser Lake — Lynden
  • Tennant Lake — Ferndale
  • Crescent Lake — Monroe
  • Shadow Lake — Snohomish
Swans flying off into the sunset.

Washington’s trumpeter and tundra swans head north for the summer months. Now is the time to see them, before the the Trumpeter swans return to the forested regions of Alaska and Canada’s western Yukon and northern British Columbia and the Tundra swans return to the windswept tundra of the Alaska Peninsula.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.