Trumpeter Swan lift-off

I visited the Trumpeter Swan congregation at the St. Paul reservoir the other day and was able to photograph quite a few take-offs and landings, as birds came and left from the open water there.   There was a lot of trumpeting that preceded take-offs, almost as if they were announcing departures.  Head bobbing was commonly observed in all of swans that morning — between members of a pair or between members of a family group, and between swans swimming in front of other swans standing along the shore.  Perhaps it is a form of social greeting, to defuse potential antagonism for invading personal space.  (We humans should be so civilized…)

When a bird is as heavy as a Trumpeter Swan (the largest waterfowl in North America stretching to six feet in body length and 25 pounds in weight), it takes power to lift off from land, and especially from water. How do they do it?

[Note to blog subscribers:  you won’t see the video below if you are looking at this post from your email.  You can try this link ( or you can click on the title of the post in the opened email, and that will take you to the WordPress site where the video can be viewed in the post by clicking on play.]

Running is key to take-off, and flapping wings with a powerful downstroke to generate lift is also essential. But what I had not appreciated about the swan take-off is how essential ankle and digit flexibility is. In the photos below, you can see the swan’s foot flexes almost 180 degrees to provide the push off from either water or land surface.

The dull gray morning made it hard to see white swans against white snow, but you can see the amount of flexion of the very black foot and ankle joint in this photo.

The same technique for pushing off is used on water as well, even though there is less resistance pushing against water. However, very large webbed feet with a huge surface area help in this endeavor.

Close-up of the water take-off, focusing on those big black feet.

And of course, those big feet come in handy as platforms for landing as well.  Birds flying into the open water look like they are lowering their landing gears.

Flaps lowered, landing gear down, the Trumpeter Swan flight group is getting ready to land…as always trumpeting to announce their presence.

So, to answer the big question, can swans really walk on water?  Sort of — if they run fast enough and flap hard enough.

6 thoughts on “Trumpeter Swan lift-off

  1. Thanks for the post. I love the photos and the video—particularly the audio! We have Trumpeter swans at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary just north of St. Louis and I’ve spent some time watching the swans come and go. However, they are typically far away and I haven’t attempted audio.

    • Other than bad light, this spot was ideal for taking some video clips of swan behavior. I was only about 50 yards away. Many birds had already flown off, so I was hoping to catch the next group of swans, and I almost missed it by staying focused on the birds that were bobbing at each other.

  2. Great shots, Sue. Thanks especially for pointing out the details so that I knew what I was seeing. The head bobs were pretty obvious in the wonderful video, but I might otherwise not have paid much attention to the foot flexion that you noted.

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