The tundra swan, also known as the whistling swan, is a large handsome white bird with coal black legs and feet and a matching black bill.
The tundra appears very similar to the trumpeter swan but is somewhat smaller, the trumpeter being the largest waterfowl in North America with a wingspan that can exceed 8 feet.
The tundra swan also has a yellow spot to the front of each eye that is sometimes quite small and not easy to see without the help of a scope or binoculars. The tundra and trumpeter are true native swans that we get to see here in Illinois during the winter months and during spring and fall migrations.
I also should mention another swan that is a year-around resident and actually breeds here in Illinois, the mute swan.
The mute swan is larger than the tundra and a little smaller than the trumpeter and is an Eurasian species that was introduced for its elegance and beauty to grace private estates, park lakes and ponds and, eventually, escaped into the environment.
The mute has a bright orange bill with a black knob where the bill meets the face on the forehead helping make the bird easy to identify.
When our native swans — the tundra and trumpeter — are seen together, the size difference helps distinguish them, but when seen separately, one has to rely on other physical clues such as the yellow spot near their eyes on the “lores,” the area between the nostrils and the eyes.
Something else to consider is that about 10 percent of tundra swans will not have the yellow spots at all, according to Sibley Guides.
The bill of each bird offers even more clues. When looking directly face to face with the swans, the tundra has more of a rounded boarder along the top of the bill between the eyes, and the trumpeter has a v-shape.
The slope of the head of each bird offers even more to be examined when looking at the birds profile, the tundra has a rounded crown and the trumpeter has more of a slope that lines up and continues down the bill. Now we are in late winter, and the swans have been staging in our area for many weeks with other waterfowl waiting to move North.
Soon, these wonderful birds will start their flight toward the Arctic, where they will spend a short summer nesting on the ponds, lakes and the wetlands on the vast tundra of Canada and Alaska.