The world’s largest waterfowl species is the trumpeter swan, which can reach as much as 38 pounds.
Trumpeters historically bred throughout Canada and in most of the northern states; however, the trumpeter swan was considered an endangered species here in the states, long before there was an Endangered Species Act. Because of their large size, they were hunted for their meat and feathers, as European settlers invaded the continent. Their primary feathers, or quills were reported to be John James Audubon’s favorite for writing. However, probably more than their meat, the value of their down led to their decline.
They were shot and trapped by the Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur traders throughout Canada and some areas of the Pacific Northwest The company managed trading forts throughout those regions. Trumpeter swan skins were more valuable than beaver pelts. Trappers would pluck their body feathers leaving down on the skin. The skins were sold to make powder puffs, supporting the makeup industry in Europe and North America. This almost led to their extinction by the turn of last century.
In the 1930s, only 69 trumpeters were known to be alive in the United States and those were all in Yellowstone and the Centennial Valley of Montana. That discovery led to the establishment of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Those birds were sheltered from trapping and hunting due to the remoteness and harshness of the region, which kept most people away during wintertime. Swans were able to survive through the cold in these regions thanks to ice-free areas created by hot springs and geysers.
In the late 1930s, biologists began moving some of those trumpeters to other refuges, including Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Unknown to the U.S. biologists at that time, there was another area, Grand Prairie in Alberta, Canada, where a small flock of trumpeters also survived. Additionally, after Alaska became a state, more trumpeters were discovered, and a survey in the 1960s found more than 2,000 there. This led to trumpeter swans being removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 1968, before the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In the mid-1960s, several Midwestern states in the U.S. began restoration programs. Since trumpeter swans received protection from unregulated take from the Migratory Treaty Act of 1918, populations have recovered significantly in Alaska, the Midwestern United States and western Canada. However, in the western states, they are still struggling, with fewer than 1,000 breeding adults. Many local flocks are isolated and doing poorly. Only two nesting pairs remain at Yellowstone National Park and at Malheur refuge.
The Trumpeter Swan Society has partnered with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build a healthy Oregon breeding flock; releasing birds at Summer Lake Wildlife Area, which is a good place for bird watchers to see them. Good news is that trumpeter swans are migrating through Oregon, and February is a good month to spot them among the vast tundra swan flocks moving through the Klamath Basin.