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Learn what swan behavior means

Above: Swan disputes and chases happen frequently on winter areas as swans gather and share winter habitat.  Disputes make great photo opportunities. Swan injuries in these dramatic moments are rare. Photograph by Margaret Smith

Common Swan Behaviors Explained


It is thrilling to watch and hear Trumpeter Swans taking off! Their large feet plopping faster and faster as they gain speed is unmistakable and very dramatic.

Watch this video of a group of Trumpeter Swans taking off at sunset.

Do you live in an area where you see Trumpeter Swans and Tundra Swans together? Sometimes it can be difficult to tell them apart. Below are some helpful tips to look for using their flight and pre-flight behavior.

Takeoff characteristics: Trumpeter Swans vs Tundra Swans

Following their takeoff runs and just as they become airborne, Trumpeter Swans usually pull their necks into a shallow "S" curve. This is seen only for a very brief time during their first wing beats.

Tundra Swans hold their necks straight the entire time of the takeoff run and initial flight. This characteristic applies to both land and water takeoffs.

Trumpeter Swans may be the last birds in a mixed flock of Trumpeters and Tundras to take off. They may stay as long as one minute or more than the Tundra Swans. This happens when trumpeter swans and tundra swans occur together but are not entirely intermingled (trumpeter swans frequently remain at one end of the flock). This behavior is usually seen in smaller mixed flocks of less than 200 swans.

Chases and Disputes

Trumpeter Swan

Photograph by Margaret Smith

Trumpeter Swans frequently bob their head and necks up and down (head bobbing). With this motion they also have a variety of vocalizations. ( Head bobbing is a common form of communication between individuals and within the group. For example, Trumpeter Swans head bob during pair bonding behavior; before and after territorial disputes; as communication within the swan family group to show interest in take-off; as greetings to Trumpeter Swans in flight overhead; or when meeting other groups or family members; as part of alarm communication, and other types of communication).

Head bobbing and vocalization activity intensify when the birds are disturbed and reaches maximum intensity just prior to the birds taking flight (note to photographers- look for the rapid increase in the rate and depth of head bobbing and vocalizations which occur just prior to take-off).  This behavior may be brief or absent if the birds are suddenly startled and take flight.

Swan Videos

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swans do not bob their head and neck up and down like Trumpeter Swans. Occasionally Tundras will nod only their head up and down. There is no defined preflight display as in the Trumpeter. While vocalizing Tundra Swans may hold their head and neck out at a 45 degree angle.The behavior in the photo is the “neck-stretching” display, in which Tundra Swans thrust their heads and necks forward, either to reinforce bonds with their mates or threaten other swans.

You can tell the difference between the two swan species at a distance.  Trumpeter Swans can be identified at a distance as they thrust their heads vertically up and down in display. Tundra Swans will not.

Photograph by Carrol Henderson. These two Tundra Swans show a 45 degree angle in their head and neck position.

Taking Flight

Trumpeter Swan

A Trumpeter Swan will pull its neck into a shallow "S" curve just a split second before beginning its takeoff run.

If you look carefully at the banner photo, you will see the neck positions in the take-off sequence. From left to right: the swan's head sinks into its chest and its neck forms a "C" [this is an unmistakable position for a takeoff]; the wings begin to rise at the swan's side and its neck remains compressed as the swan gathers its energy for takeoff; the swan's neck forms the "S" curve and its wings begin to lift; like a straight arrow, the swan shoots forward and begins its running takeoff.

IMPORTANT: Some Trumpeter Swans are marked with identifying neck bands. Please note the collar color and number or letters as well as date and location. Go to our Trumpeter Watch Report page to see how you can be part of tracking that particular swan's movement.

Trumpeter Swans are large birds who need long areas for landing and takeoff. Nearby powerlines can be deadly because swans are not nimble, due to their large size.

Photograph by Margaret Smith
Trumpeter Swans are large birds and need a lot of room for takeoff. They become airborne while close to the ground and it takes several seconds before they reach greater heights.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swans hold their necks straight the entire time of the takeoff run and initial flight. This characteristic applies to both land and water takeoffs.

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