by Whit Gibbons

May 10, 2015

Whether you like the challenge of hunting ducks, enjoy watching geese pass high overhead in a perfect V or engage in throwing bread crumbs to swans in a city lake you need to be aware of an outstanding nature book, "Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America."

The book was sponsored by the Wildlife Management Institute, written by Guy Baldassarre and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. It is the most comprehensive overview ever written on waterfowl that fly the skies anywhere between Mexico and Canada. This scientifically accurate, superbly written account covers all of the 46 U.S. species in the three bird groups.

This book does it all - complete species accounts that include information on identification, geographic distribution, migration, ecology, behavior and reproduction. Excellent photographs, hand-painted illustrations of every species and colored maps of the geographic range in different seasons complement each species account. Drawings of ducklings, goslings and cygnets provide comparisons of the different species.

Because it is such a biological and wildlife conservation classic, the origin of the book itself deserves mention. The book was originally written by Francis H. Kortright in 1942 and became the authoritative source on U.S. waterfowl. The work was updated and expanded in 1976 by Frank C. Bellrose.

The revised version, published in 2014, continues with the same standards of excellence as its predecessors. Comprehensive coverage of a 1,027-page book would be too lengthy, so I decided to focus on swans, two of which are native to North America and a third that is from the Old World but here to stay.

If you see a huge white bird swimming in a lake it will probably be a mute swan. With an orange bill and a black knob in front of its eyes, a mute swan is readily recognizable. The species was brought to this country from Europe in the 1800s, but wild populations now occur in many areas. Mute swans often become semidomesticated, as with those seen in city parks, and are thought to have been domesticated in Europe more than 8 centuries ago. More than 22,000 are currently estimated to be in North America, a low population density compared with the quarter of a million living in Europe.

Mute swans are beautiful to watch as they glide gracefully across the water but are a force to be reckoned with during their breeding season.

They have been known to turn over kayaks and canoes, continuing to attack a person in the water. Human deaths have even been reported, with victims being drowned.

A dog had best beware of an attack by a mute swan as many have been killed by an enraged mother swan. The mute swan is not silent at all, making a variety of bland sounds, although the hissing of an angry swan is anything but pleasant.

To our credit the world's largest species of waterfowl, the trumpeter swan, is a U.S. native with an estimated population size of more than 46,000.

To our discredit, only 69 individual trumpeter swans were left in the United States in 1932, an inexcusable example of near extinction of a species resulting from overharvesting for the plume trade due to inadequate wildlife regulation.

Trumpeter swan cygnets are the paragon of the fabled "ugly duckling" in being "mouse gray," whereas the snowy white adults with their large black bills are magnificent. Trumpeters get their name from a deep, resonant two-note call.

The other U.S. swan belongs as much to Canada as to us. The tundra swan lives up to its name by breeding in the arctic and subarctic, although they migrate to several southern states in winter, these enormous white birds, also known as whistling swans, are the most abundant of the three North American species, with numbers being estimated at greater than 200,000.

Any of these impressive waterfowl are wildlife marvels to watch flying or swimming, but if they have an orange bill, keep your distance.

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