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.


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 sizesopens IMAGE file


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.

a trumpeter swan flapping its wings on the wateropens IMAGE file

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.

a mute swan gliding through wateropens IMAGE file

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

a tundra swan liding through wateropens IMAGE file

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

a snow goose gliding through wateropens IMAGE file


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.")

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  1. Eric on January 16, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    People often seem to say Canadian geese while the term is Canada geese which is actually named after a man named Canada

    • kiley on January 17, 2020 at 8:35 am

      True, it is Canada geese 🙂

      • Lydia vargas on January 24, 2020 at 1:01 pm

        Nope what I saw wasn’t a swan or snow geese

    • Nic Kuvshinoff on February 9, 2020 at 5:28 pm

      I hear “Canadian” Geese all the time instead of Canada Geese. I have also heard the story about a man named “John Canada”. I am a bit skeptical about that part; I wasn’t able to readily find any information confirming that point. I believe that may be apocryphal.

  2. eggstrapolating eggvidence on January 4, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    Would the bird from the untitled goose game be a swan or a goose? I believe it to be a mute swan, who happens to make a goose call. Can anyone help?

    • Eric on January 16, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      If swans only have white feathers then what color is a black swans feathers?.

      • kiley on January 17, 2020 at 8:35 am

        Native U.S. swans all have white feathers

  3. Katie Anderson on December 28, 2019 at 10:18 pm

    I live in Whatcom County, WA, and on two occasions about two weeks apart, I’ve seen trumpeter swans in fields NW and N of Lynden, WA.

    The first was a flock of ~50 individuals, feeding in stubble. The second time was on 12/27, and only 3 individuals. They, too, were feeding in stubble.

    We have many bird species here, lots of Canada, snow geese, etc, but these were a surprise!

    • Julie Richter on February 7, 2020 at 11:10 am

      I live in Lewis County WA and just last week I saw a flock of around 20 trumpeter swans swimming and feeding in a lowland waterlogged corn field, it too was a surprise! I feel that here it’s part of an annual migration pattern as I seem to remember seeing them near the same field every year around this time.

  4. Chester on December 17, 2019 at 2:47 am

    Toe field Alberta, Canada, one hour east of Edmonton, annually has Snow Geese gatherings to which they invite bus loads of tourist with bird interests. As the birds are migrating they stop in their journey at this quiet out of the way community to feed and rest.
    To the untrained eye,swans, trumpeters and mute swans are dispersed in the flocks.
    The event is TOEFIELD’S claim to fame, worth seeing to obtain a personal moment of contentment, a moment of ALL IS WELL WITH YOUR WORLD.

  5. Deb on December 15, 2019 at 9:21 am

    This past week on a very cold day in the heart of Minneapolis, but close to the Mississippi River, l looked into the sky and saw 7-9 pristine white, very large oval bodied birds in a tight formation flying overhead. There was too much street noise to ‘hear’ them but lm thinking Swans, but which? My car had just been hit by a red light runner so l took this sign as a good omen! BTW, a graphic of the undersides from below might be helpful.

  6. Roger on June 4, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    I was playing a Hank Williams song by the lake one night and the yodelling called in a pair of swans from across the lake. They circled around three times overhead before moving on. Living proof that swans like honky tonk!

  7. jackie bork on May 1, 2019 at 7:31 pm

    Do swans every land in corn fields for food or are they always in water

    • kiley on May 2, 2019 at 10:09 am

      Swans are most commonly seen on water. They may graze outside of a wetland, but it is not as common as geese.

  8. Carole Westby on March 24, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    Yesterday I was surprised to hear both Snow goose and Canadian geese calls at the same time. I looked up and the “V” was led by 4 snows and the rest on each side of the v were Canada Geese, with three at the end of one side all white!!! they DO travel together!!! so fun to see! ( It was outside of Garfield of MN and they were heading north west.

    • Shannon on April 2, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      I am sitting at my cottage on Lake Ontario, and I just saw a v formation led by 6 snow geese followed by 6-8 Canadian geese! Awesome.

  9. 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.