Minnesota’s Trumpeter Swans

In that dreamy mode when the mind brings up images as if from the deep, I imagine the swan as a ballerina, arching her beautiful long neck as she takes flight on her toes, her arms like slender graceful wings. Beside her, riding the air, two huge white birds, their white necks and black beaks outstretched, skim the water, put down black webbed feet, and fold their white wings–tents of clouds, gliding to a stop.

In the ballet Swan Lake, the swan dies, leaving her human lover aching with grief. In a daily cacophany of birdland on the winter Mississippi River near Monticello, Minnesota, our own ballerinas of the air hold up their regal heads, paddle upside down searching for food, mix with almost grown, gray cygnets, and receive the applause of an astonishing amount of corn.

Every day throughout the winter, in this theater of the swan, a generous couple, aided by swan lovers from miles around, feed around 500 swans, mallard ducks, and Canada geese. The menu is around 1500 pounds of corn a day. It is an astonishing sight, especially since the trumpeter’s come-back has been conducted largely by the same species who almost eradicated the bird in the first place.

In 1989, when Minnesota’s “bring back the trumpeter” effort first took flight, I wrote a long article for Minnesota Monthly (March 1989)–“Bringing Back the Swain.” There had been two decades of work to protect and help repopulate a small number of swans in Hennepin County, Big Rat Lake, Carlos Avery Wildlife Area, as well as several lakes in Becker County, near the western edge of the state. Trumpeters used to be plentiful throughout much of the continental United States but they were an easy target for hunters–their heavy body (up to 35 lbs) and slow take-off and landing with their nine-foot wingspans–“like a 747,” early wildlife workers like to say–had left their numbers so small in the continental US as to predict extinction.

Then in the 1980s, thousands of trumpeters were discovered in Alaska. In an amazing effort, funded in part by “the chickadee check-off” on state income tax forms, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources and Hennepin County Parks–aided by “citizens for swans” in the Trumpeter Swan Society–worked to repopulate Minnesota with its glorious native swan. DNR’s Carrol Henderson flew to Alaska to collect (sparingly) the trumpeter eggs–the size of nerf footballs. Steve Kittlesen tended incubators, turning the eggs as a parent swan would, and hastening the hatched cygnets into swimming pools. He quipped it was a darn good think he didn’t have to teach them to eat.

There were some sad set-backs–a mink got into a brooder building and killed all 31 newly hatched cygnets. Replacements of this expensive stock came from the Minnesota Zoo, private growers, a research station in Manitoba, and Hennepin parks. “The better way…would have been not to let the [trumpeter] disappear in the first place,” Kittleson said. But the habitat and the financial support and the eggs were available. Fully grown trumpeters were flown to small puddle lakes near Fargo-Moorhead, to try raising families. Goofy things happened: one bird couldn’t be herded to water for 90 minutes. One kept heading to the road to watch the cars.

The following summer, 15 free-flying pairs returned to Detroit Lakes, joining 42 newly released birds. Over the winter, some birds discovered open water on the Mississippi near the nuclear power plant at Monticello. Others spent the winter south in Iowa and Missouri.

One of the best reclamation efforts was reviving Swan Lake near St. Peter, bringing back its original grassy, reedy form. A huge lake with many small bays, Swan Lake used to be home to many trumpeters long before Westerners arrived. “Named Manka tanka ota menda, or Lake of the Large Birds by the Dakota, the lake was a summer hunting ground for Chief Sleepy Eye” (Galt, 1989). When I wrote the 1989 account of these efforts, there were predictions that someday 150 birds might live on Swan Lake. The DNR hoped to establish a free-flying flock of 30 breeding pairs, and 300 birds to add to the Hennepin Parks flock of 100.

No one could have imagined that today, in 2015, an estimated 2500 trumpeter swans live in Minnesota. They mate for life and raise their fluffy gray cygnets in small prairie pot-holes. Some surely try out spots in Canada, and Montana. Each year a number of trumpeters and other water fowl sicken from ingesting lead from hunter’s bullets and fishing sinkers. The lucky ones are treated at such places as the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Saint Paul.

But overall, the present numbers and health of the world’s largest and, for me, most beautiful water bird is nothing short of miraculous. A few days ago as we stood in a chill wind watching the “man who feeds the swans” spread splash after splash of corn among the noisy, stately, pushing, eddying throng, I thought how wonderful when humans take to their hearts another form of life, and protect and nourish it. Young and old, hale and feeble, came to watch the swans enjoy their food. And not only that to appreciate the on-going effort, the care and desire to continue feeding and helping the trumpeter through the winter.

Of course only a fifth, at the most, of the summer trumpeters hang out in the warmed water below the Monticelli power plant. But at this moment, I can’t imagine asking for more. This ballet of the air and water, of human and big white bird is a continuing love story.

To enjoy watching trumpeters in the winter Mississippi, here are directions from the Twin Cities – take 94 west and exit at the first Monticello exit. Up up the ramp at the stoplight, turn right. You will be on Hgwy 39. Go 1/4 mile and turn left onto Mississippi Drive. The park is about 500 yards, and is clearly marked with parking for handicapped and others. There’s a path down to the river. Each day’s “feeding” is at 10:30 a.m. Make a donation if at all possible.

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