A look at Trumpeter swans

by Nikko W. Naugle


Among us in the San Juan Islands on our very own Orcas, we have a great treasure. We usually see this treasure during the winter. It is a handsome, black and white, five-foot-long bird called the trumpeter swan, otherwise known as cygnus buccinator. Trumpeter swans are superlative birds. This story, except for the introduction, is told by a cygnet, a baby swan in his trumpeter swan family.

Don’t you love a good bird when you see one? Well, I have two pretty handsome colors. White is the predominant color of my plumage while the feathers near my neck are a rusty color from dipping into the water to get food. The decaying minerals do that. My feet and beak are onyx. I kind of like that word.

When I say that my looks are very handsome, it’s supported by those humans over there who keep pointing, “oohing and ahhing” and going crazy over us. We trumpeters are the largest not only of all swans but also all waterfowl. With my neck extended, I can be up to five feet long; even more incredibly, my wingspan might reach eight feet. Similar to that of a small child, we can weigh as much as 30 pounds (13.6 kg). Named for my voice, I sound like an old car horn, although I am still growing into it. Our deep-toned sound, “ko-hoh”, is the loudest of any bird in North America. We produce this sound from our long windpipe.

Have you taken a trip to Yellowstone National Park? A refuge was established in the Red Rock lake region surrounding the Park, and soon they stopped hunting us there. Never was I so relieved! If you visit, bring binoculars because they’ll make you stay at least a quarter-mile away. This Rocky Mountain region is the best place to watch us in the US, and we have three main trumpeter swan nesting areas in Canada.

Upon leaving our nesting site in Canada, we stretched out our magnificent wings and started our journey. The cob, who is my father, is in the lead. No, his name is not Cob, but male trumpeters are called cobs. My mother is called a pen and she is behind my father. Then there are my siblings Lucky, Mucky, Lucy, Juicy, and me, Pablo.

We’d heard about a beautiful island at the edge of WA and decided to stop at a nice lake called Cascade. We looked around the lake and chose a quiet, temporary nesting spot. A cygnet like me can walk up to one mile without rest but I was happy that we rested in a couple of places since my two-week-old legs are still short. We usually nest on beaver dams, but we also like to nest in shallow water like those found here at the Lake. The mother usually lays 4-9 eggs and has one every other day. This year, I guess she only had five. Oh, look. There’s a human photographing us. “Make sure to get my good side,” I honked.

I was kind of scared about the home spot we picked because, at first, we saw four adolescents in a rocket-like machine that was going so fast my head started to spin. My father told me that it was a crew scull filled with high school humans testing their abilities. Then I got the scare of my lifetime from a water machine with four eyes, two heads and quickly rotating blades in back! I had never experienced a paddleboat. I showed off my handsomeness after they stopped, but Lucy was signaling like crazy for me to leave quickly. She always worries about illegal hunters from stories she’s been told by our grandparents. Once in the 1600s, there were only 69 of us trumpeter swans left in the world. Sixty-nine! White hunters killed off thousands of us to make powder puffs, writing quills, and pillows.

My best friend Moosey (his nest is on the other side of the lake) and my favorite meal is underwater plants. Well, actually, most trumpeter swans prefer aquatic plants. We are mostly vegan, like Nikko, but after we have eaten the yolk in our egg and are well-nourished during the first couple of days, the next food that we eat is small creatures including shrimp and fish. But then we go vegan. I think we are pretty cool.

Our Latin name, cygnus buccinator, means “swan to trumpet”: Cygnus is a swan, buccinator is to trumpet. I really like to eavesdrop, and I heard a couple after sighting us say that there was a buccinator muscle in humans’ cheeks for blowing out a candle. They were also amazed that our kind actually needs 100 meters to lift our bodies out of the water because it takes time and distance to get my wings out of the water. When I overheard them say that a wild trumpeter can live up to 26 years, I was shocked. TWENTY-SIX! Scientists even captured one of us who lived to be THIRTY-TWO!!! I’ve got so much more living to do and I hope that I see you in one of our beautiful places soon.

This is Nikko and I hope that you can recognize from my cygnet friend Pablo that trumpeter swans are really, really cool birds. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My third/fourth grade class at the elementary school was working on a project to write and publish a bird book called The Birds of Orcas Island. When I pulled trumpeter swans from the 24 species in the hat, I said, “Oh, jeez,” because I thought trumpeters were boring. But it turns out, they aren’t! The largest of all waterfowl, handsome, very graceful, and once an endangered species brought back from less than 69 remaining in the world! If in your next lifetime you become a trumpeter swan, be sure to brag…you’ll have a great story to tell.

Big thanks to Colleen Smith at the Islands’ Sounder for publishing my writing, to my teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Johnston, for editing and encouraging me, and last but not least, my parents, for also editing and encouraging me. And thank you to my little brother, Orion, who has awesome suggestions and ideas. You can find my website with book reviews, interviews, stories, fun ideas and more at nikko.mykajabi.com.