Tundra swans provide a stark contrast to the arctic landscape. When you first see them
from the air, you wonder what they are - those big white spots. They look out of place against
the blue-grey lakes and the brown, green and crimson of the tundra. Once you see them from the
ground, however - majestic birds against the backdrop of tranquil lakes and lofty mountains -
you know they belong.
Formerly known as “whistling” swans, tundra swans wing their way north each spring to nest
in the remote and undeveloped coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The swans are among the earliest spring migrants, arriving in late May and early June.
Breeding birds fly in as pairs. They build their nests in upland tundra areas near river
deltas along the northern coast. The widely-scattered nests are large mounds of grasses,
sedges, lichens, mosses and feathers.
As many as 150 nests and 500 adult swans have been counted on the coastal plain. The
breeding pairs maintain territories throughout nesting and brood-rearing. The young swans
(cygnets) hatch about a month after egg-laying. Both parents guard the cygnets until they
fledge just before fall migration. The cygnets stay with their parents until they have
returned to the coastal plain the following year.
move around locally, usually in lines low over the tundra. They sometimes form larger flocks
to feed and rest, or search for places to do so. Tundra swans feed on the stems, seeds, roots
and tubers of submerged and emergent aquatic plants.
Just before fall migration, the swans gather along the brackish shorelines of river deltas
to rest and feed. In September they depart the coastal plain in flocks of family groups and
non-breeding birds. The swans migrate, with others from northern Alaska and northwestern Canada,
across the continent to wintering areas on the Atlantic coast from Maryland to North Carolina.
The arctic wetland habitats and quiet solitude of the coastal plain are critically
important* to the successful breeding of tundra swans on the Refuge. The birds are an
indicator of the health and productivity of the coastal plain ecosystem. They add a special
grace and beauty to the wondrous place that is the Arctic Refuge.
Information about breeding activities of Tundra Swans within the Arctic Refuge are in:
*Monda, M.J. 1991. Reproductive ecology of tundra swans on the Arctic NWR. Ph.D.
thesis. Univ. Idaho, Moscow, Idaho. 94 pp.
September 12, 2008