4 ways to tell apart swans and snow geese

It’s a big, white bird paddling on that body of water.

But what exactly is it?

Most likely, it’s a trumpeter swan if you’re in Iowa. The trumpeter swans is native to the state and is the biggest waterfowl native to the U.S., its wingspan reaching up to 8 feet — that’s taller than Yao Ming, who was only 7 feet six inches.

Prior to settlers coming to Iowa, these swans nested throughout the state, but wetland drainage and unregulated hunting led the species to endangered status. After a concentrated effort to reintroduce the species back to Iowa by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local conservation organizations, the trumpeter swan now has a conservation status of species of least concern.

As popular as it is today, many people still don’t exactly know what a trumpeter swan looks like or how it differs from other swans and even a snow goose. Here are some differentiating factors between swans and a snow goose.

Bill

Perhaps the easiest way to tell species of swans apart is by their bill. A trumpeter swan has a black bill with a discreet red border on its lower mandible — the top of its bottom jaw. The tundra swan has a yellow mark at the top of its bill, right under its eye. The mute swan has an orange bill with a black knob on its forehead. The snow goose has a much stubbier pink bill with a black patch in the middle.

Graphic about bill sizes

Size

Size is an easy way to tell different species apart. As mentioned above, trumpeter swans are definitely the biggest with an 8-foot wingspan and a body that reaches up to 6 feet long.

Photo of a trumpeter swan

Mute swans, which were introduced to the U.S. from Europe and Asia because of their looks, are almost as big with wingspans 82-94 inches and bodies 57 inches, but tundra swans are definitely smaller than both.

Photo of a mute swan

Tundra swans have wingspans 72-80 inches and 52-inch bodies.

Photo of a tundra swan

Snow geese are much smaller with wings 36-44 inches wide and a 27-inch body.

Photo of a snow goose

Call

If you can hear the bird that is in question, check these calls to see which it matches up with. A mute swan is less vocal than other swan species, although it is not completely mute, because its trachea goes straight into the lungs instead of being embedded in the sternum.

Mute swan

Trumpeter swan

Tundra swan

Snow goose

Wings and neck

A snow goose can be told apart from all swan species because of its wings. Swans have all white wings with long, slender necks, while a snow goose has black primary feathers and a short neck.

When you take a close look, each swan is different than the other, and although people say snow geese look just like swans, they really are quite different.

(Read “7 Differences Between Osprey and Bald Eagles.”)

2 Comments

  1. Gina Pitera on November 23, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Do snow geese and swan ever travel in the same flock? I am looking at a medium flock on a freshwater lake north of Stillwater, Minnesota? Most of the birds are all white with fairly long necks. The other birds have grayish, black feathers in top of white feathers with shorter necks.

    • kiley on November 26, 2018 at 8:48 am

      They may not travel together, but they may stop in the same areas during migration, so you can see them together on lakes. We have a large group of Canada geese on East Lake Okoboji right now that also has about eight trumpeter swans in it.

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