To the Point
If you like to hunt ducks and geese, you should add the tundra swan to your “bucket list.” The Airbus of the waterfowler’s world, a tundra can plunge a butcher’s scale to 25 pounds, and one pump of those wings spanning eight feet can propel the bird 15 feet or more. Obviously, you want to head-shoot such big, powerful birds; not so obvious, perhaps, is that many first-time gunners forget to lead their target. Some hunters have been known to hit the ground for cover instead of shooting at incoming swans as they passed dangerously low over the blind, the whoosh of their wings sounding like a locker-room shower at full blast.
These wary, majestic birds are a true trophy and a once-in-a-lifetime hunting experience. A personal thrill occurred in December 1990 near Pantego, North Carolina, one of only a handful of states where tundra swans are legal to hunt. The bird I tagged that chilly morning was stunning: an all-white adult with a splash of yellow at the base of its bill, which otherwise shone black like anthracite. With that experience crossed off my list, it is unlikely I’ll kill another tundra swan. But if you have yet to do it, you should.
Tundra swans, aka whistling swans, are one of two swan species native to North America. The other is the bigger trumpeter swan, largely confined to the western flyways and not hunted legally at this writing. Trumpeters are the world’s largest waterfowl; males average 28 pounds and females average 22. Considered endangered in the early 1900s due to market hunting for the meat and plume trades, there are currently about 50,000 trumpeter swans in North America, compared to an estimated 175,000 tundra swans. Both species are increasing at the rate of 4 to 6 percent per year. The US Fish and Wildlife Service manages for the Eastern and Western populations of tundra swans with the goal of a 10-percent annual harvest by sport and subsistence hunters, who also kill a small, incidental number of trumpeters due to the birds’ similarities. In addition to size, a key difference is their call: Trumpeters sound like a trumpet (some say French horn); tundra swans make many different sounds, including barking like a dog.
The invasive mute swan, which currently inhabits all four flyways, is a bird of Eurasian origin. First brought to the New World from Europe in the mid-19th Century to help beautify public parks and private estates, mute swans escaped to breed in the wild and have become a serious nuisance, especially in Michigan where I live. Sadly, we cannot hunt them here for largely political reasons. More on that in a moment. First, come back with me to that winter morning years ago in North Carolina.
I was a guest at Pungo Acres Hunting Retreat, about 60 miles northeast of Greenville, or roughly halfway to Nags Head on the Atlantic Ocean. Formerly timbered with cypress and juniper, this farmland area is now a rich bowl of wet soils that produce excellent yields of grain crops. Biologists estimate that 65 to 75 percent of the roughly 100,000 tundra swans of the Eastern population overwinter in northeast North Carolina. The birds we hoped to intercept were flying out of Lake Mattamuskeet and Pungo Lake, both of which are national wildlife refuges, to eat in area grainfields.
A cold front had moved in overnight, and rain flecked with snow spit on the windshield of lodge owner Edwin “Booger” Harris’s mud-spattered, jacked-up Suburban. Two friends and I bounced around in the back while Harris and guide R.A. Phillips drove us to a “hot field” the birds were using. I quickly dubbed Harris, 42 at the time, “Mister Personality” for his yeoman efforts to show lodge guests a great experience. Having grown up only 30 miles away, he was a talking textbook on area history and culture, stopping just long enough to crank down the window and hurl a mouthful of Beechnut chewing tobacco juice. Hunters come to Pungo Acres to shoot ducks, deer, quail and, of course, tundra swans. Most leave happy after the final night’s hog roast (“pig pickin’” Booger calls it) with coolers full of game.
Booger nosed the wheezing Suburban into a picked cornfield ringed with irrigation ditches, and everyone helped set out a spread of Canada goose decoys. Then we added long strings of white plastic bags; secured by a stake at each end, the sacks would flap before an east wind, which Booger wisely kept at our backs, and act as decoys for the giant waterfowl. He then set up a lightweight portable blind and said, “Stoke up, boys. It’s already shootin’ time, and we won’t have to wait long.”
My notes remind me I was shooting a D Grade Parker Reproduction in 12 gauge. Designed to shoot steel shot, the gun had 28-inch barrels choked Improved Cylinder and Modified (“Full-choke patterns are too tight for the close-up shooting we get,” Booger had advised). I was expecting a headache from the pounding the 6G-pound gun would deliver from the 3" Winchester Super Steel copper-plated magnum goose loads I fed it. In those days, before HEVI-Shot and other nontoxic alternatives to lead and steel, we relied on 1-1/4-ounce loads of T shot.
Spotting birds over a line of naked maples to the north, Booger mouth-called, “Skronk, skronk,” a couple of times, and three swans turned our way. Juvenile birds, they passed over our blind like gray boxcars. “Let ’em go,” the guide said. “You can take only one, and you want a snow-white mature adult.” I remember wondering if the African plains (where I have yet to hunt birds) looked like this landscape of live-green myrtle and copper-colored broomsedge. I was listening to the calls of wintering catbirds when a huge flock of noisy Canada geese roared overhead. (How did they know the season was closed?) Angling to their left was a phalanx of six swans but, although the leader was white as a bedsheet, they were too far for a shot. Meanwhile, Booger had gone silent on calling. Tundra swans are so big that you simply cannot miss them. I watched a trio row overhead while noisily fanning the air and cooing like mourning doves and was tempted to try for one, but our host insisted we wait until they committed to the decoys.
Twenty minutes later three more swans passed over us, hanging in the gray sky like bleached Goodyear blimps. They wheeled for a second look and stroked over us at 40 yards. Throat pulsating from excitement, I kept my head down and waited for Booger’s command. “Not yet, not yet,” he whispered. I could see the swans’ black bills and ebony feet, like miniature coal shovels laid back to their bodies, the lead bird sporting a splash of lemon on its face. The swans committed on the third pass, wings back-pumping and landing gear punched out.
“Take ’em,” Booger hissed, and I leaped to my feet and bore down on that yellow cheek paint. Bang! Nothing! I pulled the barrels lower and fired again; this time the long neck kinked like a plumbing elbow, and the swan broke and crashed to earth. I learned soon enough that my first shot had hit the bird in the head, and the second had centered the base of its long neck. Holding that massive trophy, which weighed more than 20 pounds, I realized how lucky I was. Recounting similar feelings after shooting a capercaillie in Russia and a black bear in Canada, I knew I had no need to kill another tundra swan. Sometimes one is enough.
Federal permits to hunt the Eastern population of tundra swans are issued by North Carolina, Virginia and both North and South Dakota. Your best chance is the random draw for 5,000 permits in North Carolina, where the application period is typically July 1 to September 30 for the November to January hunting season. Only 600 permits are currently available in Virginia. South Dakota hosts 800 to 1,000 hunters each year, and you can apply for a second license if any are left over. This year in North Dakota, 2,200 swan permits are available. The Western population of tundra swans is open to hunting in Montana (500 permits), Nevada (650 permits), Utah (2,000 permits) and in portions of Alaska. State game departments allow both residents and nonresidents to apply. For deadlines and other information, go to the respective agency Websites.
Mute swans, which are protected, have orange bills and S-curved necks, thanks to 23 vertebrae (more than any other bird). Like the other swan species, mutes eat pondweed, wild celery and other aquatic plants preferred by ducks and geese. Too many swans of any race can destroy waterfowl habitat because of their appetites (a trumpeter can eat 20 pounds of plant life a day) and their habit of tearing out plants by their roots. In some areas farmers consider them pests. Highly territorial, mute swans are an aggressive nuisance to lakefront-property owners. In Illinois recently mute swans attacked a man in a kayak, causing him to flip and drown. In 2000 about 5,700 lived in Michigan; today there are an estimated 15,500, and they are increasing at a rate of 9 to 10 percent annually. The Feds dropped protection of mute swans in 2004, but anti-hunters have successfully lobbied the Michigan DNR to keep them safe from hunters.
That’s unfortunate. I’d like to add a mute swan to my bucket list. Besides, I’m told that swans are an absolute delicacy on the table. I never found out with my tundra swan, because the bird never made it into my cooler for the trip home. Not an accusation, mind you—just a hunch—but I suspect Booger kept it for Christmas dinner.
Tom Huggler’s Grouse of North America and A Fall of Woodcock won national acclaim and are now collectible. His Quail Hunting in America (Stackpole) and L.L. Bean Upland Bird Hunter’s Digest (Globe Pequot) are still in print.
- By: Tom Huggler