In Your Backyard: Tundra swans return to Madison

Tundra swans floating on a lake

By Bryn Scriver, Lakeshore Nature Preserve Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator

Each year around this time, as the northern lakes start freezing, large numbers of snowy white tundra swans descend on Lake Mendota along the shores of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Their arrival is announced with a cacophony of whooping or yodeling—reminding me of a raucous family reunion!

The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) breeds in the Arctic and the eastern population migrates through the Great Lakes and Wisconsin on its way to the Atlantic Coast. Tundra swans winter on the water, even sleeping while afloat. They feed by tipping up their bottoms and dipping their long necks underwater to reach aquatic plants, like wild celery, which can be found in abundance in Lake Mendota’s University Bay. The birds are big, weighing anywhere from 8.5 to 23 pounds, and have a 6-foot wingspan. They can be mistaken for the other native Wisconsin swan species, the trumpeter swan, but can be distinguished by their calls. Tundra swans have a high-pitched, quavering call, while trumpeter swans have a deep, gentle honk in a series of two to three notes.

The flocks of tundra swans stick around Madison as long as the lakes’ shallower waters are ice-free and they can find food. They will be back through Madison in the spring, but they don’t seem to stick around as long on their return trip. The UW Lot 60 boat launch is a good place to watch these beautiful white birds. To find them just follow their calls (visit to listen).

You can also view the swans on the Dec. 22 Bird and Nature Outing from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Meet at the entrance to Picnic Point next to the kiosk (2002 University Bay Dr). Bird and nature outings are sponsored by the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.