The Comeback of the Trumpeter Swan

ByLee Dye

Jan. 31, 2001 -- 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.

Habitat Missing

"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.

Avoiding Scrambled Eggs

That success has been repeated in many areas, due largely to a relatively abundant supply of eggs in Alaska. But transporting those eggs back to the "Lower 48" is a challenging feat indeed.

The eggs are collected when the embryos are 20 to 25 days old, Johnson says, because they are hardy enough to survive the rigors of transcontinental travel.

"We had special boxes that held the eggs in an upright position so the little embryos didn't get scrambled," Johnson says. The boxes were packed with hot water bottles and loaded aboard commercial aircraft for the 18-hour trip from Fairbanks to points south.

Johnson says his group has collected 869 eggs over the past few years, and 777 of them hatched. Of those, 661 survived, and 584 were released into the wilds.

"That's right around 90 percent success" at each step in the process, he says.

Some of the birds were held back for genetic testing, and that revealed the importance of collecting the eggs in Alaska. It turns out that the Alaskan swans have far greater genetic diversity than their cousins to the south, thus increasing their odds of survival.

But like many other species, trumpeter swans have to be taught some of the keys to survival. Not everything comes naturally.

Trumpeters need to move south for winter foraging, and without parents around to show them the way, some scientists have thought the transplants would surely perish. That has led some to take exotic measures, including sending ultra-light aircraft along with the flock to guide them to greener pastures.

But as it turned out, most swans that have been reared and released in the Great Lakes have managed to survive without traveling south.

"We thought migration was a prerequisite to the successful restoration of trumpeter swans to the Great Lakes region," Johnson says. "But we estimate that fewer than 20 percent are migrating into southern Illinois and Missouri" for the winter.

"What we didn't know is how adaptable these birds are," he adds. If their preferred aquatic plants aren't available in the winter, they just hop into the farming fields and feed on "waste grain," he adds.

Success Despite Hazards

However, the danger is far from over. Some trumpeters may fall victim to the good intentions of people who set out food for them, tempting them to hang around instead of heading south for more nutritious winter habitats. The birds are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, and there's a lot of lead buckshot in the bottom of their feeding areas. They also tend to fly low, even in areas of high tension wires.

And although protected by law, there is the constant danger of a hunter mistaking the trumpeter for a game bird, or the vandal doing what vandals do best.

The statistics, however, are encouraging.

"The population is increasing at close to 25 percent per year," Johnson says. Of course, some of that increase is from the continued reintroduction of chicks from eggs collected in Alaska, but the mature birds are also reproducing.

"We're still putting a couple of hundred birds a year out, but we're producing 600 wild birds a year, and that's pretty impressive," he says.

Equally significant is the fact that the birth rates exceed the death rates, meaning the population is growing even without the introduction of new birds.

So listen, and perhaps you will hear the haunting sound of the trumpeter, playing a tune that hasn't been heard in some parts for more than a century.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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