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