Trumpeter Swans on the Rebound

  • After nearly a century without them, the Great Lakes region is seeing the return of the Trumpeter Swan. This nesting pair (white with black bills) is caring for three cygnets (grey with orange bills) at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in Michigan.

For one hundred years, one distinct sound of nature had been missingfrom the Great Lakes region. However, in recent years that wild callhas returned and is growing in numbers. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Lester Graham reports… about this time of year a fewdozen pairs of trumpeter swans make their way from their northernnesting areas (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario) to theirwintering grounds (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York,Iowa, and Missouri):


For one hundred years, one distinct sound of nature had been missing from the Great Lakes region. However, in recent years that wild call has returned and is growing in numbers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… about this time of year a few dozen pairs of trumpeter swans make their way from their northern nesting areas (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario) to their wintering grounds (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Iowa, and Missouri).

(Trumpeters trumpeting, loud and close)

Joe Johnson says this is the “clarion call of the trumpeter swan.” Johnson is a wildlife biologist at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. Johnson says these birds have a call that fits their size. They’re North America’s biggest waterfowl. The trumpeter swan is graceful looking as it flies low and slow. Its flying tendencies probably helped lead to its disappearance in the Great Lakes region. Johnson says the first European settlers, the French, found them easy to shoot …and easy to sell.

“So these were marketed for their flesh. They were marketed for their feathers. Huge trade in feathers back to Europe through Fort Detroit, where I assume they made pillows, and quilts, and mattresses, adornments for hats, writing pens, all those things that feathers could be used for 200 years ago.”

At that time in the Great Lakes region there were an estimated 100-thousand trumpeter swans. By 1900 they were wiped out in the area. In the mid-1980’s state agencies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario decided to try to bring the bird back to the region. Joe Johnson and many of his colleagues went to Alaska where trumpeter swans could still be found and brought back a few swan eggs to incubate and raise. Those states had good luck with hand-rearing their swans so, a few years later state agencies in Iowa and
Ohio joined the trumpeter repopulation effort. In each state the birds seem to be doing well. Joe Johnson says the birds are breeding and producing more young cygnets than expected.

“We thought if each pair produced two young per effort that we would be doing real well. That’s basically their productivity in Alaska. But if we think of the Great Lakes as sort of the premier trumpeter swan habitat because of the length of our growing season, the productivity of our soils and our wetlands, then it’s not a surprise that they’re producing on average three young per nesting effort.”

Even with those kinds of successes, the trumpeter swan faces some hurdles.
Because the birds fly so low, some of them are killed flying into power lines. Others are killed by lead poisoning. Hunters used to use lead shot to shoot ducks and geese. A lot of those lead pellets are still in the mud where the trumpeter swans forage for underwater vegetation.

A few swans are also killed in accidental shootings by waterfowl hunters. In
Illinois Dan Holm watches out for the swans for the Department of Natural
Resources. He says hunters are told through hunting regulations, news releases, and briefings at state sites to watch out for the birds. But Holm says some hunters still blast away at the trumpeter swans mistaking them for snow geese.

“Well, there is a dramatic difference between a snow goose and a swan. Really, there is no good excuse for one being mistaken. You know, it happens. Mistakes happen in all aspects of life. But they’re– snow geese are a lot smaller than swans, any species of swans and snow geese have black wing tips where the swans are all white.”

And it’s not just conservation officials who think there’s no excuse for the accidental shootings. Bruce Batt is chief biologist with the conservation group, Ducks Unlimited.

“Hunters should not mistake trumpeter swans for snow geese. Both birds are very different. The trumpeter is just much bigger and it’s all white and has a very different call. And really anybody that’s responsible should not make a mistake in shooting a trumpeter swan and mistaking it for snow geese.”

But the most disturbing shootings are vandalistic killings. In 1999 in
Illinois, five swan carcasses were found on a road, four of them with their heads cut off, possibly to remove tracking collars. Recently in Wisconsin a
17-year-old boy was convicted and fined for killing a trumpeter swan. Sumner
Matteson heads up the trumpeter repopulation effort for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Generally, a concerted effort is made to educate hunters about the differences between swans and geese. And really it comes down to wanton acts of vandalism, if you will, regarding the shooting of trumpeters. So, in other words, in most instances in my experience, it has not been the mistaken identity, but when you have birds that are killed at a close range, it’s clearly a case of a malicious act. And fortunately those are quite few and far between.”

(Trumpeter sound, loud and proud)

At the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Joe Johnson says even with killings the trumpeter swan population has grown from a few dozen eggs in the mid-1980’s to a 1999 count of well over two thousand birds in the Great Lakes Region.

“The population is growing at about 17-percent per year despite the losses to lead poisoning, vandalistic and accidental shootings, high tension wires, they’re doing great.”

Johnson says now that nesting pairs are doinng well in northern areas, the next step is to start rearing birds in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, to encourage the trumpeter swan to re-establish its migratory patterns from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, Ohio, Wabash, and Illinois rivers. For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.