More than a century ago, there were so many trumpeter swans in the Great Lakes that an early French explorer described them as "so abundant as to create the false illusion of white water lilies" blanketing the lakes and waterways of the region.
Some estimates placed their number at more than 100,000. But by the end of the 19th century, the largest waterfowl in the United States, with a wingspan of between 7 and 8 feet and weighing up to 35 pounds, had been hunted to near extinction.
A few still survived in the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, but the last of the great birds had disappeared entirely from the nation's upper Midwest.
Now, due to an amazing effort by scientists and conservation groups, the trumpeter swan appears to be making a comeback.
"We're very optimistic that we're on the verge of a major conservation success story," says Joe Johnson, chief wildlife biologist at Michigan State University's Kellogg Bird Sanctuary and chairman of a multi-state organization that monitors waterfowl populations on the Mississippi Flyway.
Today, there are more than 2,463 trumpeters in a wide range from Saskatchewan and Ontario in Canada to Iowa and Ohio in the south, and their numbers are growing, Johnson says.
The program has exceeded its own goals, set in the 1980s, due to the efforts of scores of workers who ventured into the Alaskan tundra and the Rocky Mountains to carefully collect eggs. The eggs were then brought back to an area that most likely served as the breadbasket for the trumpeter swan before humans wiped them out.
Now, the blaring call of the trumpeter, which sounds almost exactly like a trumpet, can be heard again throughout the region. The great bird is not completely out of danger yet, but its ability to survive, and reproduce, has surprised even the experts.
Some wondered if the bird could live at all in an area that has been so drastically modified in the last century.
"In Michigan, at least 50 percent of the wetlands has been drained," Johnson says. Further south, where trumpeters found the resources they needed to survive the winter, the situation is even more "dire," he adds.
"In Iowa and Ohio over 90 percent of the wetlands have been destroyed," mostly for agriculture purposes, he says. "So there was a major habitat component missing."
But scientists noted the mute swan, a slightly smaller bird introduced from Europe decades ago, seemed to be doing quite well in the region. That led many to conclude that hunting, not destruction of wetlands, led to the demise of the trumpeter. They decided in the 1980s to give restoration a try.
The first efforts to reintroduce the trumpeter were disappointing, but in 1989 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources turned to the far north for help. Alaska's trumpeter swans seemed to be flourishing, "probably just because there weren't enough people up there to kill them all," Johnson says.
The Wisconsin team began collecting 50 eggs a year, and then incubating and hatching them at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Returning them to the wilds of Wisconsin was tricky, according to Sumner Matteson, an avian ecologist with the state's Department of Natural Resources. Undergraduate students from the University of Wisconsin hovered over the young birds like parents, teaching them, for example, to fear predators.
Matteson estimates there are about 50 nesting pairs in the state today.
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