Do Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Whooping Cranes Summer Anywhere in Wisconsin?

Jul 22, 2019

For this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist tackles another Curious North question, about some of Wisconsin’s largest migratory birds—swans and cranes.

This is another curious north question that captured my interest, so I thought I would spend some time talking about some of our area’s less common migratory birds. Rosemary Resch asked “Do swans, sandhill cranes and whooping cranes summer anywhere in Wisconsin or are they primarily migratory?”

We have two native swan breeds in Wisconsin. The trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl species in North America, measuring six feet long and weighing 25 pounds. It is an all-white bird with a heavy, pointed black bill.  The black from the bill goes up and surrounds the eye, and there is a narrow, salmon-red stripe along the lower mandible.  The call of the swan earns the name trumpeter, because it sounds much like a brass instrument.

This bird can live for 20-30 years, and mates for life.  Once you have a pair establish in an area and raise young, you will likely see more—the females, when they mature and find a mate, will lead that mate back to where they were raised so they can raise their own broods there. Trumpeter swans are a success story in the works. Once thought to be doomed to extinction, careful conservation efforts have helped to bring their numbers back. The swan feathers were once coveted for women’s headgear and elegant quill pens. Today they enjoy special protection and their numbers have slowly increased. The trumpeter swan is a species of special concern in Wisconsin, and we do have birds that live and nest in larger wetlands that allow minimal human disturbance.

The tundra swan, our other native swan species, is also all white. It has a shorter black bill, and the black comes up to but not around the eye, and there is usually some yellow visible. It is about half the size of the enormous trumpeter swan. Its call is high-pitched and quavering, sounding more like a Canada goose. This swan is also sometimes called the whistling swan; explorer Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition sent out by President Thomas Jefferson, was the first to refer to them as whistling because of the sound they make in flight. They live very far north, so they do not nest here—they pass through in the spring and fall as they travel between their nesting grounds at the Arctic circle and their southern wintering grounds along the eastern seaboard.

Sandhill cranes are another bird that appeared to be headed for extinction like the swan. Their numbers have made an amazing comeback though and they can be found across most of Wisconsin. We have cranes that reproduce here, but studies have shown that some nests fail because of the flies that chase the birds off their nests. You can find sandhill cranes walking with their colts along the edges of grasslands, wetlands, and pastures here in the headwaters, but our populations here pale in comparison to those counties further south along the Wisconsin River, in central and south-central parts of the state. They really seem to like row crops and cow pastures, so they do better below the tension line. Every spring since 1976, we have counted cranes across the state, so you can find out how many cranes we have by county since that time by looking at the International Crane Foundation’s crane count website. While I know much less about whooping cranes, I can tell you that the ICF website can help you learn more about our small native flock that has grown since our initial reintroduction effort in the state.

Finally, a quick note that if you really want to learn more about what birds we do have here in Wisconsin in the summer, there is an easy way to do it. Simply look up the Wisconsin breeding bird atlas, or soon to come breeding bird atlas II, and it will tell you by species or by geographic location what birds are found breeding here in the state.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The photo above is courtesy of oneearthimages/pixabay.com and can be found online here.

Do you have a question for the Masked Biologist? Submit it below to our Curious North series and it could be featured in an upcoming commentary.

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