Atlantic Flyway Tundra Swan Research

North Carolina plays a vital role in the yearly cycle of the Eastern Population of tundra swans, wintering more swans, by far, than any other state on the East Coast. Each fall, approximately 65 - 75 thousand swans migrate to northeastern North Carolina to take advantage of the abundant food sources found in our lakes, sounds and farms. The approximately 25 thousand remaining swans in this population winter in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and New Jersey. A separate Western Population exists that winters in several western states including California, Nevada, and Utah.

The large, white, readily observable bird, is a favorite among birders and considered a trophy to hunters. North Carolina is one of only a few states where the hunting of tundra swans is allowed. Swan hunting here follows strict guidelines with only 5000 permits issued annually. Because of our large wintering flock and permit allocation, North Carolina waterfowlers harvest more tundra swans than any other state. Virginia is currently the only other state along the eastern seaboard to hold a limited hunting season. Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota also have limited hunting seasons while swans are passing through on their fall migration.

Tundra swans should not be confused with the larger trumpeter and mute swans. Trumpeter swans are found almost exclusively in the mid-west and western states. Mute swans are generally non-migratory and can be found scattered throughout North Carolina. They are a non-native species that can be quite aggressive when approached.

Currently, tundra swan populations are monitored in several ways. Each year, all states along the East Coast conduct a mid-winter waterfowl inventory. This low-level aerial survey occurs in early January and all waterfowl are counted in selected areas.

Productivity surveys are also conducted each fall to give biologists an indication of the previous years breeding and nesting success. These surveys indicate that while there are annual fluctuations in population size and productivity, the Eastern Population of tundra swans has greatly increased over the last 40 years.

North Carolina along with other swan hunting states also estimate their annual harvest of swans. This information provides us with long-term insight into the effects of hunter harvest on overall population size and growth.

Although all of our current data suggests that the tundra swan population in recent years is stable, it is incumbent upon North Carolina to take the lead in the proper management of this resource. In 1999, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission initiated a 5-year multi-agency project looking at several aspects of tundra swan ecology. Specifically, we hope to gain a better understanding of annual survival rates, local wintering ground movements, migration chronology, and key breeding areas. While North Carolina will be providing the lion's share of the data, other states that winter tundra swans are involved and the project will provide a comprehensive look at the entire Eastern Population of tundra swans. Cooperators in the project include: Delta Waterfowl Foundation, New York Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Tundra swans should not be confused with the larger trumpeter and mute swans. Trumpeter swans are found almost exclusively in the mid-west and western states. Mute swans are generally non-migratory and can be found scattered throughout North Carolina. They are a non-native species that can be quite aggressive when approached.


Currently, tundra swan populations are monitored in several ways. Each year, all states along the East Coast conduct a mid-winter waterfowl inventory.

This low-level aerial survey occurs in early January and all waterfowl are
counted in selected areas.


North Carolina, along with other swan hunting states, estimates their
annual harvest of swans.


In this current study, we are using 3 marking techniques to learn more about our wintering population of swans. First we are applying

uniquely coded plastic neck collars to the swans at various locations throughout the wintering area. Collars are gray with black letters (Image 1). Trained observers will then re-locate flocks of swans and read and record any observed neck collars. By re-observing neck collars over a period of 3-4 years, we hope to gain a better understanding of annual survival rates for these birds. Having an estimate of annual survival will allow managers to fine tune hunting regulations if warranted and will allow for comparison of survival rates in future years if needed.

Secondly, we are placing VHF transmitters on a select sample of swans (Image 2). The VHF transmitters are attached to a plastic collar that is fitted around the swan's neck. Transmittered swans are then relocated, by scanning with a receiver and antenna (Image 3). Transmitter life is approximately 18 months and will allow us to track swan for 2 consecutive winters. This phase of the study will provide a second means with which to estimate survival rates and also to track precise movements of tundra swans while they are wintering here in North Carolina.

Lastly, several tundra swans will receive state-of-the-art satellite transmitters (Image 4). The satellite transmitters weigh 30 grams and like the VHF transmitters, they are also attached to a plastic neck collar. Only adult female swans will receive the satellite transmitters, as they are more likely than males to return to their place of birth to nest each year. Satellite tracking will allow us to monitor movements of swans in extremely remote locations and gain a much better understanding of when the swans make their annual spring and fall migrations. We will also learn where swans are breeding and where major migration stopover points are located. Specific locations for North Carolina wintering swans are not well documented.

The transmitters emit a signal that is picked up by 3 ARGOS satellites orbiting the earth. The signals are relayed to a processing center in France and after converting the location data to latitude and longitude, the information is then relayed to researchers here in the United States. Although the cost of each transmitter with data retrieval is about $4000, this portion of the research project is cost-effective if one considers the costs associated with trapping and field tracking swans in remote locations in Canada and Alaska.

The satellite transmitters are programmed such that the frequency of transmissions is greatest during the spring and fall migration period and lowest during the summer and winter when the swans are more stationary. Expected battery life is a minimum of 18 months and should allow for tracking through several migration periods.

In winter 2001 we placed 9 satellite transmitters on adult female swans. Follow the movements of these birds as they make their spring and fall migrations and learn where their breeding sites are located in the remote Arctic. Track their migration here! In winter 2002, we plan to mark additional swans with satellite transmitters and will be adding the movements of these swans to this site in the coming months.






Image 1: Swan neck collars


Image 2: Swans are fitted with VHF transmitters.


Image 3: Swans are relocated by scanning with a receiver and antenna.




Image 4: VHF transmitter (left) and a satellite transmitter

Rocket nets are
used to capture swans.
Juvenile swans are gray (above) and adult swans are white.

Compared to some other waterfowl species, we have found tundra swans to be relatively easy to capture, although capturing large numbers of swans has proven at times to be more difficult. We use rocket nets in North Carolina to capture swans, while other states have also used swim-in traps, net guns, and night-lighting with dip nets. Our nets vary in size, but the typical net is approximately 100' x 50' with as many as 8 rockets attached. Trap sites are located near loafing or feeding areas. After swans locate and begin feeding, sites are usually baited several times each week. Each rocket contains an explosive charge that when detonated by a remote blaster, propels the net over the feeding swans. The response of swans to baited sites varies greatly. Swans at some sites may be attracted to and begin feeding within several days while other sites may take 2 or more weeks to attract adequate numbers of swans for trapping. Multiple "shots" may be made at some sites, while only 1 catch may be made at others. After capturing, we remove the swans from the net and place them in temporary holding pens. Each swan is aged by examining plumage and other characteristics. Adult swans are solid white, while juvenile swans are gray in coloration. The appearance and size of genital features may also be used to determine age and sex of the birds.

After the swans are captured they are removed from the net and placed in temporary holding pens.

How are swans captured?

 We have attempted to capture swans at many different places and distribute our trapping locations throughout the wintering range in North Carolina. Most of the trapping has occurred in Hyde and Washington counties at Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges; however, we have captured swans in other counties including: Bertie, Currituck, Dare, Halifax, Hertford, Pasquotank, and Perquimans. The assistance and cooperation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge personnel as well as private landowners has been vital to our trapping success.


The public can assist in this project by reporting legband numbers from harvested swans or reporting the alpha-numeric codes from neck collared swans. All bands or neck collars should be reported directly to the Bird Banding Laboratory by calling
1-800-327-BAND (2263) or by visiting the Bird Banding Labratory Web site. When reporting neck collars, please read collars completely and accurately and be prepared to give the location of the observed swan.

After the swans are captured, they are given legbands or neck collars for research and identification.

One of the unique and exciting aspects of the current swan research is the swan migration tracking. Through satellite tracking, we hope to determine if there are key nesting areas and migratory pathways and if there appear to be any differences in the range and movement of swans wintering in North Carolina in comparison to swans wintering in other Atlantic Coast states.

The map below shows the general range of the Eastern Population of tundra swans. See how this compares to movements of swans marked in North Carolina in 2001 and 2002. Click on the links below to view migration maps for each of the swans below.

Note: This phase of the Atlantic Flyway Tundra Swan Research is now complete, therefore there will be no future updates to the swan migration maps.  

Follow the swans in their migration!
Click on the links below to track individual swans in their migration. Maps last updated March 2004.

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Primary Range of the Eastern Population of Tundra Swans

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Each year, many bird watchers make visits to northeastern North Carolina to view our abundant migratory waterfowl. Tundra swans are a favorite among many birders as the large white birds can be easily spotted in large flocks and can be approached relatively closely. While large numbers of swans may be observed at numerous locations within the primary wintering range in North Carolina, there a several areas which provide optimal viewing opportunities. Both the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) NWR in Hyde and Washington Counties, respectively, winter large numbers (>20,000) of swans. The numerous walking trails and service roads also allow for a diversity of viewing locations. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, in Dare county winters fewer swans, but it's ease of access from Highway 12 and trail system also allows for excellent bird watching possibilities.

National Wildlife Refuges

Hunting Opportunities

Tundra swan hunting in North Carolina follows strict guidelines. A special permit/tag is required to hunt tundra swans, and currently a random draw of 5,000 permits is conducted each year in early October. Successful permit holders are allowed to harvest one swan and the tag must be immediately affixed to the harvested bird. Permit holders also are required to fill out and return a questionnaire each year stating their hunting effort and success. Applications for the draw are accepted between July 1 and September 30 each year. The non-refundable application fee is $10 and no permits will be issued to non-licensed hunters. Those persons wishing to apply for a permit can do so at 1 of approximately 1,200 Wildlife Service Agents (WSA) [formerly known as license agents] in the state. You may locate a Wildlife Service Agent here. Out-of-state hunters unable to get to a North Carolina WSA may write: Hunt Permit Applications, Division of Wildlife Management, 1722 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1722 and obtain an application form. You can see more information regarding swan permit applications as well as other special hunt opportunities by reviewing the annual North Carolina Inland Fishing, Hunting & Trapping Regulations Digest or visiting the Special Hunt Opportunites section. A Regulations Digest booklet is available for free at any Wildlife Service Agent.

Average county harvest of tundra swans

Halifax County Northampton County Hertford County Camden County Currituck County Pasquotank County Perquimans County Chowan County Bertie County Washington County Tyrrell County Dare County Dare County Hyde County Beaufort County Pitt County Craven County Craven County Pamlico County Hyde County Carteret County

Range of tundra swans in North Carolina