Animals -> Birds -> Waterfowl -> Swans


Swans are reported to have been eaten by cultures including the Coast Salish, Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kitsumkalum, Nuxalk, Gitksan (Gitxsan), Tlingit, Tahltan, Inuvialuit, Dene/Metis, Chipewyan, Hudson Bay and James Bay Cree, among others [1-16]. Many in the Arctic reportedly enjoyed Tundra Swan [1], including the Hare (Sahtu), Tlingit and Inuit [17-20]. Inuvialuit hunted both Tundra Swans and Trumpeter Swans, particularly in warmer months [21, 22]. Swan eggs were enjoyed by some Northern cultures [1].


Swans were hunted mainly during spring and fall migrations and molting period. The Chilcotin, the Han and peoples of Wood Buffalo National Park hunted swans in fall [23-26]. The Han, Upper Tanana, Kutchin (Gwich’in) and Yukon cultures sought swans in spring and summer [24, 27-30]. The Eyak hunted swans mainly in August, when the birds were molting [31].

Swans were mostly hunted with snares, arrows and nets; nets were used at the end of herring season by Northern and Central Nootka. Two hunters would use a canoe on a dark night, with one man to paddle and one to use the net. A fire would be lit in the front of the canoe. The approaching light would disturb the flocks and the birds would try to hide in the shadow of the canoe, where nets were waiting. The necks of the birds were easily wrung. With this method, hunters would quickly fill their canoes with swans [8, 32]. The Nootka of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery would hunt swans in April, also known as Flying Flocks Moon, when the stormy weather would draw the flocks to coves, where the birds would take shelter [33]. If the weather was not stormy enough, the moonlight would show the approaching canoe; therefore Nootka hunters would use another method. Hiding behind blinds made of branches, men could approach the flock and shoot them with arrows [32].

The Coast Salish also shot swans from their canoes while hidden behind blinds. The hunters would follow the swans and wait until their heads were under water for feeding, at which point the hunter would shoot an arrow at the bird’s neck [2, 34]. The Coast Salish would lure the birds towards brushwood blinds, by way of flickering torches and flares. Behind the blinds, two men in canoes would quietly take the swans with multi-pronged spears [35]. The Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) hunted swans in fresh water, where the flocks would often rest [36]. The Katzie and Kalispel hunted swan with arrows and nets. The swans were at one time so plentiful, that they were easily shot with arrows [37, 38]. Yukon cultures reportedly used special bunting arrows during the April migration and snares were also set in the grassy trails leading to the water [30, 39]. The Carrier were also known to trap swans with snares [40].

Similar to the Nootka of Vancouver Island, the Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska found swans to be easy prey when they were bound in by stormy weather and high winds [41]. In August, when the birds were molting, the Eyak would drive a flock along the sloughs to a narrowing, where the birds were forced onto shore. The hunters would kill the birds by wringing their necks and using sharp pointed arrows or clubs. These drives were most often performed in the morning and evening [31].

Central Inuit set snares on top of swan nests: many birds were quickly caught this way. Alternatively, swans were trapped with whalebone nooses fastened to long lines. These were set along the edges of the lakes where flocks would nest [42].


In the Yukon, swan was eaten with much delight. Dark swan meat, was enjoyed as much as duck [30, 39]. Though less frequently eaten by Kaska, swan was most definitely a welcomed treat [43].

The Upper Tanana boiled the birds after plucking and cleaning the carcasses [28]. To prepare swans for eating, the Gitksan burned off the feathers over a fire, opened the body and removed the bones and intestines. Swans were eaten freshly cooked, half dried or fully dried. For drying and smoking, the opened carcasses were either hung or laid flat in the smoke house [5]. Waterfowl was usually eaten fresh in the Yukon, but some cultures such as the Tagish would dry the meat for winter consumption [30, 39]. In the Arctic, swan carcasses were stored in permafrost pits with other birds, animals and fish [1].

Uses other than food

The Lillooet hunted swan for the feathers and quills [23]. Yukon women used swan breasts to sew blankets or fashion hats. Masks featuring swans were often worn for ceremonial dances; swan wings were also used in dances [1, 39].

Beliefs and taboos

The swan was often featured in Arctic legends [1]. Many Arctic shamans believed the swan’s spirit was important for healing. In the Yukon, when girls reached puberty, they were to drink from the incised wing bones of a swan. This practice was believed to ensure lightness of feet and easy pregnancies [39]. Among Sioux, there was a rule that a hunter who killed a swan had to make a medicine feast with medicine bags [44].


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Swans are a large, white type of waterfowl, closely related to geese and ducks. There are two species of native swans in North America. Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus)  are the most widespread with a breeding range from western Alaska, across the northern parts of the Northwest Territories, and eastward to Belcher Islands, Nunavut. Tundra Swans winter mostly along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but pass through the continental interior during migrations. Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) breed well south of the Tundra Swan, from southern Alaska and Yukon southward to western Alberta, eastern Idaho, southwestern Montana, and Wyoming. Most North American populations of Trumpeter Swans are not strongly migratory, over-wintering fairly close to breeding locations.

Swans are among the largest flying birds and are the largest North American waterfowl, with Trumpeter Swans weighing up to 15 kg and having close to 3 m wide wingspan. Swans have pure white plumage with a black bill (except Mute Swans, Cygnus olor, which have been introduced in parts of North America) and a black triangular patch extending from the bill to the eyes, sometimes marked with a yellow spot in front of the eye in Tundra Swans. They are very gracious birds in water, but look awkward while walking on land. Swans have strong family bonds, forming permanent breeding pairs soon in life, but becoming sexually mature later, between 4-6 years-old, when they lay around five eggs. Swans are only social during winter and are very territorial during breeding, defending space aggressively against intruders of any size. Swans forage predominantly in water, eating surface vegetation or reaching underwater plants, and only occasionally eat terrestrial plants on shorelines or in fields.

North American populations of Tundra Swans were recently estimated at around 200,000 birds, while Trumpeter Swans in western Canada and southern Alaska were estimated at around 20,000 birds. There are also approximately 13,000 introduced Mute Swans in the Atlantic flyway.


Johnsgard PA: Waterfowl of North America, Revised Edition. In. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; 2010.



Distribution maps provided below, unless otherwise stated, were obtained from Birds of North America Online, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all pictures provided below were obtained from Encyclopedia of Life
Tundra Swan
© BJ Stacey
Publisher: Flickr
Creator: BJ Stacey
Trumpeter Swan
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Dick Daniels (


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