Found: Trumpet of the Swan

Trumpet of the Swan Cygnus buccinator

Harriman State Park: 44° 20’09.97” N 111°28’01.52” W Elevation 1869 meters

“Those who spot trumpeter swans this week are asked to contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which is doing its winter survey.”    -Jackson Hole News and Guide 2/6/13

The request caught my eye. Does Idaho count? Just that weekend I’d been skiing in Harriman State Park and watched two trumpeters rise out of the Henry’s Fork River and head north upstream—their feathers as brilliant white as the fresh snow covering the ground.

This winter an injury has kept me from the high country. But instead I’ve been gifted a chance to explore areas I’ve never been, like Harriman, and linger in neighborhoods I usually race through as I head for the hills. As a result, I’ve never given much thought to swans—they just don’t hang out in the elevations I frequent. Little did I know that while many birds leave our region as winter’s cold sets in, trumpeters actually seek it out.

Yellowstone is a haven for swans and each winter thousands migrate here from Canada drawn to open waterways like the Henry’s Fork, Madison and Firehole rivers, all kept clear with the help of geothermal heat. Looks can be deceiving—when I think of “tough”, an animal that doesn’t just survive but thrives through the long Teton winter, I picture a snarling wolverine or a cougar stalking its prey. Not an oversized flawlessly white bird, waddling around sounding a ridiculous honk. How easily my mind lapsed into that stereotype alarms me; time for a shift in my paradigm.

That unique honk that echoes like well, a trumpet, takes special effort. The swan must extend his neck upwards while keeping his head parallel to the ground and maintaining a partially opened bill. Reminds me of patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. The loud sound comes in handy when fending off predators from their nests. Cobs (the males) will rush the intruder, beating their wings and pumping their necks. Having been charged by a friend’s goose, I know I’d skedaddle. Another trumpeter strategy for keeping predators away is removing plants encircling their nesting area. This keeps the water clear and minimizes the chance of a predator sneaking up on them. That ring of clear, calm water surrounding the swans isn’t simply some groovy halo set down by Mother Nature.

I suspect it’s too early for those swans at Harriman flying north to be initiating their journey back to Canada. Although the temperatures certainly have been warm recently. That is if they even were Canadian, eh. I’m a big fan of Canada and their approach to politics and people. But these northern winged neighbors are overtaking the resident population, which has caused local trumpeters to be listed as a Species of Concern. Last year the Wyoming Game and Fish Department survey revealed that more than 92 percent of the 6,100 swans tallied were from Canada. Less than 10 percent (207) live year round in western Wyoming and last winter it was reported that Yellowstone’s resident population had declined to less than ten.

I think of my home in Teton Valley, an hour to the south, and the complaint by old timers, families who have lived in the valley for generations, that the newcomers are pushing them out and taking over. Not unlike the swans, I guess. But as far as I know there’s no way yet to designate the farmers as Species of Concern.