The Heaviest Bird – At Least in North America

There are lots of ways to compare birds: wingspan, total length and weight are just three of them. But the heaviest native North American bird is the Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, which can weigh from 22 to 30 pounds.

Trumpeter Swan Stretching Wings, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

Trumpeter Swan Stretching Wings, Creamer’s Refuge, Fairbanks

Long-lived but slow reproducing, Trumpeter Swans were nearly extirpated in the Lower 48, although they don’t seem to have been in serious trouble in Alaska or Canada. An introduced Eurasian species, the Mute Swan, is nearly as large. There are heavier flighted birds; many adult Andean Condors weigh a little more, and several African species are heavier. But among native North American species, the Trumpeter is the biggest bird by mass.

Trumpeter Swan Mated Pair, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction, Alaska

Trumpeter Swan Mated Pair, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction, Alaska

Trumpeter Swans generally, but not absolutely, mate for life. Typically, they don’t breed until age 5-7. They lay just one egg and jointly brood the egg and raise the cygnet. The slow reproductive rate makes them susceptible to overhunting and habitat loss.

Trumpeter Swan in Flight, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction, Alaska

Trumpeter Swan in Flight, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction, Alaska

Despite their remarkable size, they are elegant and graceful in flight. And noisy; their calls – trumpeting – carry for miles. It’s not uncommon for the birds to be flying too high to be seen without binoculars, but for the trumpeting to be easily audible. With an incubation period of some 37 days, and another 3-4 months for the cygnets to be ready for fall migration, Trumpeters are among the first birds to arrive in the spring and the last to leave in fall.

The Trumpeters are at Creamer’s Field right now, joining Canada Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and the smaller Tundra Swans as the first arrivals. It’s worth a visit.


3 thoughts on “The Heaviest Bird – At Least in North America

  1. I was happy to see a pair of trumpeters made Capitol Lake their winter home. I saw thwm daiky on my way to and from work. It will take a bit of adjustment to see them fly off in the wrong direction in the spring and fall, but I think I’ll be OK.

  2. I was born and raised on Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta. During my early years in High School,1954 and on, a fellow from U of A in Fairbanks (Yes, U of A in those days not UAF) by the name of Peter E.K. Shepherd was working on his Master Thesis. He would come down to Cordova every summer. I was a gas boy and mechanic helper out on Eyak Lake then for Cordova Air and I got to know him, just a little. Anyway, it was during that period he became a legend. Discovering that Trumpeter Swan on the southeastern portion of the Copper River Delta and up the Copper River exceeded the known population of Trumpeters in the world by a huge margin. Or that is the way I understand it. Since W.C. is from Fairbanks and Pete was as well, W.C. can probably fill in a lot of blanks here for me.

    Anyway, my relationship with Pete didn’t end there, later I went on to be a commercial pilot myself and I flew Pete on numerous occasions during the 1960s (Pete was the official State Waterfowl Biologist back then.) I also attended the U of A in Fairbanks, from which I graduated, and during the winters had the opportunity to share some happy merriment type of occasions with Pete and his family. The great earthquake was in 1964, during that summer I was flying out of Cordova and Pete chartered me many times in order to do vegetation and wildlife studies in the aftermath of that quake. The Copper River Flats was up lifted over 6 feet which really changed thee waterfowl habitat there. I could go on and on with stories and stuff back then with him but no time here to do such. Unfortunately, I lost track of Pete many years ago.

    So what brings this all to mind for me is the first time I ever heard a Trumpeter. I was alone down by Government Slough on the Flats, 1954, these big white birds appeared on the horizon, slowly winging their way across my field of vision. Then one or two of them trumpeted. My God. I will never forget that experience.

    • WC knows of Pete Shepherd, but never met him. WC’s experience with fish and game biologists really didn’t start until 1966, and was then focused on marine science. Shepherd is cited for his work on Trumpeters in the BNA article on the species. WC worked in east Prince William Sound with a friend of Shepherd’s, Jim King, for a two week avian assessment in 1967.


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