Snow Goose vs Swan – What is the Difference?

It’s not often that a swan is mistaken for a different bird, but in the case of the snow goose the mistake is easy to make, since the two birds show several similarities.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a snow goose and a swan – but it’s a distinction that’s important to make.

Luckily, once you know how a snow goose is different from a swan, you won’t be making the mistake of mixing the two.

Below, I’m going to highlight the differences and similarities between a swan and a snow goose.

Is Snow Goose and Swan the Same?

No, the snow goose is not the same as a swan. Despite being members of the Anatidae family, they are not part of the same genus, making them distinct birds that are not related.

I mentioned in the introduction the importance of not mixing up the two birds. This distinction is especially important during hunting season when mistaking a goose for a swan means you’re breaking the law. In most states, hunting wild swans is illegal, while hunting snow geese is not.

To make sure you’re not inadvertently hunting for swans instead of geese, I urge you to read through the differences between the two birds.

Differences Snow Goose and Swan

From their appearance to their mating habits, there are several differences between swans and snow geese.

– Appearance

If you take just a quick glance at these two birds, you might be forgiven to mistake them for one another. But upon a closer look, the differences become more apparent than the similarities.

The most immediate difference you’ll notice if you look longer than just a glance is the difference in size. The swan is larger than the snow goose and has a longer wingspan.

While the wingspan of the snow goose is somewhere around 3 ½ – 4 feet, the wingspan of the swan can reach a massive 10 feet.

But there’s another striking difference that’s immediately noticeable – the length of the neck. Swans have long S-shaped necks, while geese have shorter, straight necks.

Aside from the neck, the body shape and plumage color are also aspects that can help you tell these birds apart.

Swans have a more slender build while snow geese have a more compact, fuller look. The color of the plumage is white overall for both birds, except the snow goose has black wing ends.

While swans can also have back spots or markings in their plumage, their wing ends remain white.

Therefore, a snow goose is generally smaller and shorter than a swan, which has a more elegant and slender appearance compared to a snow goose.

– Beak Shape

If you were to inspect these birds even closer, you’d also notice differences in the shape and coloration of the beak.

Swans have generally longer beaks and depending on the species of swan, the color of the beak can range from:

  • Completely black with red border on lower mandible in case of the Trumpeter swan.
  • Black with yellow marking on the lore for the Tundra swan.
  • Orange bill with a black base and black knob on the forehead in case of the Mute swan.

In contrast, the snow goose has a pink to purple-pink bill that’s both shorter and straighter than that of the swan, whose beak seems wider and extends closer to the eyes than the beak of the snow goose.

Therefore, it’s not only that the snow goose is smaller in body size, wingspan, and neck, it also has a smaller beak.

– Songs and Calls

If you want to go even further in finding differences between a goose and a swan, their songs and calls are also an area where there are differences.

Snow geese are by far the louder ones between the two birds. Even further, snow geese are possibly the noisiest of all the waterfowl.

Snow geese make a one-syllable honking noise that goes something like ‘awunk, awunk’ and a ‘kuk, kuk, kuk’ noise in their more ‘silent’ modes.

Swans on the other hand vary in their vocalizations. For example, the Mute swan isn’t as vocal as other swans, making only hissing or snorting sounds. The Trumpeter swan makes a loud, low-pitch call very similar to a bugle-call, while the Tundra swan makes a high-pitched ‘who, who-ho’.

At first, snow geese and swans may sound the same to you. But the more you listen, the more you will be able to tell how these sounds are different.

And with enough practice, soon you’ll be able to identify which is which based on the sounds they make.

– Nesting Habits

The nesting habits of snow geese and swans is somewhat similar in that they form strong bonds with their mates.

Swans reach reproductive maturity at 3 years of age, forming pairs even before they reach their sexual maturity. The female builds the nest with the help of the male and they even take turns incubating the egg.

The nest is around 1 meter across, it’s constructed on the ground but near water. The female lays around 4-7 eggs, which are then incubated for 34-45 days.

Swans are notoriously protective of their nesting site, becoming aggressive even towards humans that dare to approach the nest.

In snow geese, nesting habits are slightly different. The male accompanies the female to choose a nesting site, and once the choice is made, the female builds the nest alone.

The nest is built on the ground, sheltered by small shrubs, but relatively close to water. The snow goose lays 2-6 eggs, which are then incubated for 24 days.

Like swans, snow geese also choose a mate for life, but with one twist – they choose a mate of the same color morph as the family members they grew up with.

– Behavior

Snow geese are proficient flyers and swimmers. They spend their time foraging on foot. They can sleep either while sitting or standing on one foot like flamingos or sleep even while swimming.

Snow geese can fly at a speed of 50 miles per hour. When migrating, they fly at high altitudes and can cover distances of more than 3,000 mi (4,800 km). They’re extremely loud and highly gregarious.

Swans feed both in the water and on land. Depending on their species, they can fly at a speed of 20 t0 60 miles per hour at an altitude of 6,000-8,000 feet, covering up to 4,000 miles in a single trip.

Most swan species are gregarious, but some are more gregarious than others. For example, the black swan is exceptionally gregarious, forming flocks of tens of thousands in Southern Australia.

– Diet

Snow geese are entirely herbivorous. Swans are predominantly herbivores too, but will also feed in water, where they will consume small aquatic animals as well.

The snow goose feeds on land, on shrubs, willows, various grasses, rushes, and they consume any part of the plant from its seeds to the roots.

When migrating, they’ll consume grains, young stems of farm crops, as well as a variety of berries. Goslings will consume fly larvae as well.

Swans feed both on water and on land. When feeding in water, they consume the stems, tubers, roots, and leaves of aquatic and submerged plants.

A swan’s diet is different depending on whether it lives on freshwater or saltwater. When on saltwater, swans eat arrow grass, salt marsh grass, eelgrass, club rush and green algae, as well as insects and mollusks.

In freshwater, they eat pondweed, stonewort and widgeon grass, but also insects and tadpoles.

Most swans live in freshwater, however, they have a gland that enables them to drink saltwater too, so they also venture to areas with saltwater.

– Habitat

Snow geese live in the Canadian and Northern Alaskan tundra in coastal areas with lots of ponds, streams, and shallow lakes or coastal salt marshes.

They enjoy territories with lots of grasses, wet areas near ponds, but also open areas like lakes or farm fields, freshwater and brackish marshes, sandbars, etc.

Swans will seek out relatively shallow bodies of freshwater that are abundant in aquatic plants. During the breeding season, they seek out small ponds, lakes, undisturbed stretches of river, and marshes.

In winter, they choose sites where vegetation is available, they may also forage in croplands and pasture. They gather in flocks near estuaries, lakes, bays or ponds situated near agricultural fields.


Now that you’ve taken a closer look at the snow goose and compared it to a swan, I’m sure you can easily tell the difference between these birds.

Not just when it comes to their appearance, but also in terms of the sounds they make and the foods they eat, and lands they inhabit.

While there are undoubtedly similarities between these waterfowls, it’s important to understand that they’re not the same birds, they’re not even related.

The distinctions are even more important to bear in mind when hunting – you may be allowed to shoot a wild snow goose during the hunting season, but not a swan.

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