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Elk Island National Park of Canada

Trumpeter Swan Reintroduction Program

Trumpeter Swan ( Cygnus buccinator )
Description  : Largest waterfowl in North America. All white feathers with black bill and feet.
Field Marks  : Bill heavy in proportion to head with a straight profile. Black bill has red border on lower mandible. Eye not distinct from bill.
Wing Span  : 2.1 - 2.4 Meters (7 - 8 ft).
Weight  : Male: 12 kg (26 lb); female : 10 kg (22 lb).
Length  : 152 cm. (5 ft).
Voice  : Loud, low pitch bugle-like call.
Clutch Size  : 3 - 7 eggs.
Incubation  : Begins in early May for 35 days.
Hatch  : Average hatch is middle June.
Longevity  : 20 years in the wild, over 30 years (record is 32 years) in captivity.
Diet  : Aquatic plants, insects, crustaceans.
Habitat  : Wilderness lakes. Prefer calm waters. Low tolerance for disturbance.
Habits : With tails up in the air, trumpeters dip their long necks into shallow lakes and ponds in search of plant life at the bottom.

Why are trumpeter swans threatened?

Trumpeter swan family – Elk Island National Park
Trumpeter swan family – Elk Island National Park
© Parks Canada

The trumpeter swan population began its decline in the 1800’s with the settlement of the prairies. By the early 1900’s, trumpeter swans were nearly extinct due to over-hunting for their meat and feathers and loss of habitat. For more than a century, the trumpeter swan had been absent from Elk Island National Park and the Beaver Hills area.

In the 1930’s, programs were initiated to save the trumpeter swan from extinction in its former range in North America. Presently, only 5000 trumpeters survive east of the Rocky Mountains with the largest flock in Canada residing in the Grande Prairie, Alberta area. During the winter months, most of the swans in Alberta migrate to the tri-state area of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

Elk Island chosen as transplant site

Three adult trumpeter swans ready for relocation
Three adult trumpeter swans ready for relocation
© Parks Canada

In 1982, Alberta Fish and Wildlife identified human disturbance and habitat loss in the Grande Prairie area as a threat to the general long-term survival of the flock. In 1987, Elk Island National Park was selected for a trumpeter swan transplant program because of the available habitat, the protection provided by National Parks legislation, and its proximity to a large population centre such as Edmonton. It was agreed that the Park offered the greatest potential of giving future generations of Canadians the opportunity to view this beautiful bird in its natural habitat.

The Reintroduction

A Parks Canada Agency staff member and Canadian Wildlife Service biologist relocate a young cygnet to Elk Island National Park
A Parks Canada Agency staff member and Canadian Wildlife Service biologist relocate a young cygnet to Elk Island National Park
© Parks Canada

In 1987, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Parks Canada Agency, and the Friends of Elk Island initiated the Elk Island National Park Trumpeter Swan Reintroduction Program.

At the program's inception, trumpeter family groups were captured in the Grande Prairie area in late August and transported to Elk Island. During this period, the adults are unable to fly because they are moulting (shedding old feathers and growing new ones), and the cygnets have not yet fledged (learned to fly). After release in Elk Island, the families stayed together, and when the cygnets fledged (sometime in September) the swans migrated to the tri-state area for the winter months. Each spring, the adults returned to Grande Prairie to raise subsequent broods. The relocated cygnets, however, migrated back to Elk Island—the area where they had fledged.

Program Success

A Parks Canada Agency staff member with an adult trumpeter swan
A Parks Canada Agency staff member with an adult trumpeter swan
© Parks Canada

In 1998, eleven years after the implementation of the reintroduction program, a milestone was reached—a pair of reintroduced trumpeters successfully raised four cygnets, becoming the first breeding pair in the Park in over a century. There were four other sub-adult (non-breeding) trumpeters in the Park at that time, bringing the total number of swans in the Park to ten.

Now, eleven years later, the reintroduction program is steadily showing signs of success. In the 2009 autumn aerial monitoring flight survey undertaken by Elk Island National Park staff, 8 breeding pairs of trumpeters and 17 fledged cygnets were spotted. Another 17 sub-adult trumpeters have established themselves in the area. A total of 50 swans migrated out of the area in 2009.

Although the numbers of swans that return to the Park and surrounding area have not increased every year, the trend is still expected to move upward over time. For various reasons, such as harsh winters and an overabundance of swans on the winter range, there is expected to be an occasional year that the number of mortalities on the winter range will result in a decrease in the spring return rate of swans in comparison to previous years.

A critical mass of adult swans has been reached in order to sustain an upward growth in the population numbers and ensure genetic diversity. Unless some very unfortunate event takes place (such as extremely bad weather on their winter range, causing large die-offs) it can be expected that the trumpeter swan is now a successfully reintroduced species to Elk Island National Park and the nearby Beaver Hills area.

Expansion Outwards

An interesting aspect of the program is that the swans are slowly expanding out from Elk Island National Park. Of the 34 swans that returned to the area in 2009, 16 returned to Elk Island, 9 settled in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area to the south of Elk Island, 4 returned to the Ministik Bird Sanctuary, and 5 spend most of their time on private land just outside the Park boundary. This confirms the significance of habitat stewardship of the Beaver Hills Initiative in the region. The Beaver Hills Initiative is a committee comprised of a large group of multiple stakeholders throughout the Beaver Hills region. This committee (with public input) is working on guidelines and procedures to implement sustainable community initiatives that conserve landscapes and lifestyles in the region by fostering long term working relationships and by providing effective leadership, coordination, and communications.

Cooperation and Education is the Key

It has taken many years of hard, dedicated work from numerous agencies, support staff, volunteers, and the general public to successfully reintroduce this once endangered species to this area.

Many species reintroduction programs around the world are not successful because of loss of habitat or a number of other limiting factors. Present day factors limiting trumpeter swan survival include: continued habitat loss; human recreational disturbances; illegal hunting; accidental shooting (mistaken for the smaller tundra swan on winter range); collisions with power lines; lead poisoning from lead shot ingested while feeding; disturbances from industry (such as forestry, oil and gas); disturbances from areas of major human habitation; and natural predation.

All factors that limit the success of trumpeter reintroduction programs throughout North American have played a role in slowing the re-population of trumpeters in our own backyard. Despite these limitations, the Trumpeter Swan Reintroduction Program in Elk Island National Park and the greater Beaver Hills area has been a success. The crucial lesson to be gained from this is for us to help protect species and habitat while we can—before a species becomes endangered or habitat is destroyed. A rare species or lost habitat is very difficult and sometimes impossible to bring back. For restoration of habitat or the re-introduction of a species to be successful, much time, dedication, funding, and support is required.

Where can the public see trumpeter swans in the Elk Island National Park area?

Trumpeter swans and mallards
Trumpeter swans and mallards
© Parks Canada

The reintroduction program is ongoing and the numbers of swans in the Park are presently low compared to historic levels. Swans spend most of their time on relatively isolated lakes. They are very timid and are easily disturbed during the summer months when they are defending their territorial lakes. Park officials have restricted public access to these areas to protect the breeding pairs.

However, during the spring and the fall periods when swans congregate with other waterfowl, they are less shy and may be viewed from a distance. Several breeding pairs and sub-adults have been observed on Astotin Lake each year during these periods while they are staging with other waterfowl. These are the best opportunities available for the public to view the trumpeter swans at the present time.

Trumpeter swans (and all other waterfowl species) should only be observed from a distance along the shoreline and never approached in watercraft. If members of the public observe a breeding pair of trumpeter swans on any lake, they should report the observation and not approach the swans at all (even from the shoreline). When the swans are sitting on their nests (only the female sits) they are EXTREMELY susceptible to disturbance. If they are disturbed at this time there is a very high probability they will leave the nest area and leave the exposed eggs open to the weather and the elements. The eggs can easily overheat in the sun or be lost to predators such as gulls, crows, jays, weasels, or coyotes patrolling the shoreline area.

Please note:
Astotin Lake is also visited by tundra swans for a few weeks each spring and fall as a staging area to rest and feed during their migration between northern Canada and the southern States. White Pelicans also feed on Astotin Lake all summer but do not breed in Elk Island National Park. It may be a good idea to learn the differences between these three species before venturing out to bird watch.