Washington Swan Stewards

Washington Swan Stewards

Felburn Foundation Supports Winter Habitat Protection In Washington


One of the highlights of Trumpeter Swan recovery has been the growth of the Pacific Coast Population since it was first surveyed in the 1950s. Numbering about 25,000 swans in 2005, the Pacific Coast Population contains 2/3 of North America's Trumpeter Swans.

Photo by: Loren Webster

About half of the Pacific Coast Population winters in remote estuaries along the Pacific Coast. Most others winter in southern British Columbia and northwestern Washington where they feed primarily on the crop residues in agricultural fields and in grass pastures, often associated with dairies. The most serious problem facing this population is the rapidly increasing loss of farmlands in Washington, southern British Columbia and Oregon to subdivision or other uses that preclude use by wintering swans

Northwest Washington, with over 10,000 wintering Trumpeters, is their single most important wintering area in North America. Unfortunately, this productive region is becoming increasingly urbanized. Agricultural land is rapidly being lost or converted to non-wildlife friendly crops. The future ability of this area to support wintering swans and other waterfowl will decline substantially without careful planning. These agricultural lands provide essential winter habitat that is crucial for the maintenance and security of this population. To maintain this population it is necessary to identify adequate long-term winter habitat and ensure that land use mechanisms are in place to maintain its suitability for wintering swans.

To accomplish this very challenging goal, TTSS is building partnerships with a wide variety of regional entities, including the dairy industry, other agricultural groups, conservation groups, federal, state, and local planners and resource managers, universities, hunters and many citizen volunteers. We also work with partners in adjacent areas of British Columbia, where Trumpeters also winter. Most of the support for this work is provided by a very generous grant from the Felburn Foundation.

Our efforts to protect habitat currently are focusing in four areas:

  • Mapping all agricultural lands that currently provide important winter habitat and potential areas that could be suitable for swans if current trends in population distribution and growth continue.
  • Creating educational materials that explain the importance of agricultural lands for wintering swans and specific characteristics/techniques needed to keep agricultural lands suitable for swan use. These materials are being created in format suitable for legislators, federal, state and local planners, agricultural groups, private landowners, and the general public
  • Identifying the most important land use and waterfowl habitat processes that will determine the future of PCP swan winter habitat and participating in these processes.
  • Strengthening the administrative mechanisms that protect the Johnson/Debay Swan Reserve and experimenting with farming practices to maximize benefits to swans.


An increase in Trumpeter Swans in the Pacific Coast Population is good news. In the past as now, each fall the swans migrate south from Alaska to wintering areas in our coastal wetlands. Beginning in the mid-1960s, swans found an abundant winter food resource on agricultural lands. The farmland in western Washington and the Fraser delta area of British Columbia is of particular importance to migratory waterfowl. Swans, geese and ducks consume crop residues that remain after harvest, with potato, carrot, corn and grain fields being very popular "field-feeding" areas. Many of these birds also eat the winter cover crops (grass or winter wheat, cereal rye or rye grass) planted in these fields and also search out insects, seeds and weeds.

In Washington State, over 98% of wintering Trumpeter Swans are dependent on agricultural lands. Of particular importance are dairy farms.

Photographer unknown

Over 85% of wintering Trumpeter Swans are dairy farm dependent - they feed on the corn left in the field after harvest, an important protein resource.

Photos by: Graeme Fowler

With this increase in swan use comes increased issues with farmers and agricultural impacts. Trumpeter Swans are welcome winter visitors on some farms. Dairy farms are vital for wintering swans.

Sometimes swans can benefit agriculture. On potato crop fields, where swans can number 500 or more in one field, swans pick fields clean of waste produce that remains after harvest.

Photos by: Graeme Fowler

Photo by: Martha Jordan

However, sometimes , swans may cause economic damage from foraging activities and management activities are sometimes required to minimize impacts Swans can cause significant crop damage to grass or winter wheat fields by overgrazing and stunting plant growth, and by pulling out grass plants while foraging. They can eat up to ten pounds of grass per day.

Swans can also cause soil compaction by trampling wet areas of fields with their large feet. When this occurs, farmers have to replant, resulting in added expense and forage loss. Western Washington and other U.S. wintering sites do not seem to have the issue that occurs in British Columbia, where swans in flooded fields can create bathtub size craters while searching for food. These craters can create hazardous conditions for farm equipment and their operators.

Photo by: Graeme Fowler

Sound management of wintering Trumpeter Swans in agricultural areas relies heavily on cooperation between farmers and wildlife agencies, with support from the general public. In Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Trumpeter Swan Society, Washington State Dairy Federation and other agricultural groups are working together with private landowners to benefit wintering swans and the agricultural practices that help sustain them.


Purpose of Cover Crops

Cover crops consisting of grasses, legumes and/or grain crops are grown between annually planted cash crops for the purpose of protecting and enhancing the soil. The most common cover crops in southern BC and Washington are late summer- or fall-seeded wheat or barley. Other cover crop options include ryegrass and other perennial forage crops, oats or clover.

Photos by: Graeme Fowler

There are many agronomic advantages of using cover crops. For instance, they can:

  • reduce soil loss due to water erosion;
  • maintain soil surface infiltration;
  • improve soil tilth;
  • provide valuable organic matter to the soil when ploughed down in the spring; and
  • absorb nutrients that otherwise may leach from the field.

Cover crops also provide feeding habitat to large numbers of over-wintering waterfowl such as Snow Geese, Trumpeter Swans, American Wigeon, Mallards, and Northern Pintail.

Growers are challenged to develop farm management strategies that integrate or reduce the impact of intense waterfowl grazing on winter cover crops and perennial forage fields, particularly from Snow Geese. Cover crops, when carefully planned and seeded, can withstand or recover from repeated grazing events and act as effective lure crops to draw waterfowl away from perennial forage fields.

Management Activities:

Management activities include: habitat restoration, conservation easements, experimenting with farming practices, biological data collection, banding, migration studies, and mortality research.

Monitoring swan behavior is an important aspect of developing successful swan management programs. Government agencies and local volunteers conduct swan surveys to monitor the distribution of wintering swans.

Winter cover crops are planted on harvested vegetable fields to reduce damage to nearby grass fields. These crops can lure swans away from vulnerable grass crops that farmers wish to protect.

Hazing programs, which include placing obstructions in fields and chasing swans with dogs and noisemakers, can deter swans from using grass fields. These preventative measures can reduce the level of swan damage to fields. It is important that hazing programs accommodate each farmer's field management practices.

Pro-active communication between wildlife agencies, local farmers and the general public is required to improve the understanding of all concerns and ensure that swans will have adequate winter habitat.

All of these activities are required to develop workable solutions that effectively manage Trumpeter Swans.

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  • Actively supporting local wildlife management initiatives in your area.
  • Supporting wildlife conservation efforts through donations and volunteer work.
  • Being active in your community to ensure good land use planning procedures and habitat protection, especially agricultural/farmland conservation.
  • Purchasing locally grown rather than imported produce, to help sustain the agricultural industry in Washington State or your local community.
  • Joining The Trumpeter Swan Society and support our efforts to help conserve farmland and sustainable agriculture which support swans and other wildlife.

Return to The Trumpeter Swan Society website