To me, the animal that defines our wild continent isn’t the bighorn sheep, or the whitetail deer. It’s the tundra swan, massive waterfowl that–as their name suggests–live most of their lives in the fragile taiga of the polar north.

But every year about now they make an epic migration out of their snowbound habitat on their way to winter in Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf Coast, the Panhandle of Texas, and the Central Coast of California.

Every year, their migration through my part of Montana signals the end of fall and the arrival of winter. When they pass over, often at night with their bugling calls the only sign of their passage, I know it’s time to split wood and insulate windows, and make sure the heat tape is working in the livestock water tank.

These birds are huge, with wingspans approaching five feet and they weigh more than 20 pounds. They often loaf on larger reservoirs on their way through my country, pure-white pillows floating on muddy prairie ponds.

I live in the Central Flyway, and tundra swans are legal to hunt here by those who obtain permits in a special drawing. Thing is, so few hunters take advantage of this opportunity that there are almost always hundreds of surplus permits remaining after the draw, free for the asking at Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ offices.

And every year, I get one of these permits, just in case I have the good fortune to encounter one of these winged clouds from the north. I don’t kill a swan every year, but I always try.

This week I managed to fill my tag by jumping a prairie reservoir and surprising a flock on the water. I waited for them to get aloft, focused on the bird closest to me, and missed with a load of 3-inch BBs. The second shot connected, and after a 400-yard retrieve by my Lab Willow, I managed to hold this symbol of wild grace in my hands.

Winter’s coming. A blizzard is set to descend this weekend on much of Montana. But we have wood in the bin. And a swan in the oven.