Since the 1900s, trumpeter swans have been a rare sight in the Great Lakes region. The birds were hunted down for their meat and feathers. Wildlife biologists are now trying to reintroduce them into the area, but the birds still face many obstacles. Lester Graham of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, reports.
CURWOOD: About this time of year, biologists in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are on the lookout for new broods of trumpeter swans. But for a century, the distinct call of the trumpeter had been missing from the Great Lakes Region. Now that call has returned, and it's growing in strength. Lester Graham from the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports.
(trumpeter swan trumpeting)
GRAHAM: That loud honk belongs to North America's largest waterfowl.
JOHNSON: It's the clarion call of the trumpeter swan.
GRAHAM: Joe Johnson is a wildlife biologist at Michigan State University's Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. He says it doesn't sound like it, but the trumpeter swan is one of nature's most graceful looking animals.
GRAHAM: In flight, it glides low and slow above the treeline, and its flying habits probably helped lead to its decline in the Great Lakes. Johnson says European settlers found them easy to shoot, and easy to sell.
JOHNSON: 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 and adornments for hats and writing pens, all those things that feathers could be used for 200 years ago.
GRAHAM: By the 1900s, trumpeter swans were gone from the Great Lakes. So, in the mid 1980s, Joe Johnson and some of his biologist colleagues decided to bring them back. They went to Alaska, where the trumpeter swans could still be found, and returned with a few eggs to incubate and raise. The restoration effort took hold, and today, Joe Johnson says the birds are doing better than expected.
JOHNSON: We thought if each pair produced two young per effort that we would be doing real well. That is 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 its not a surprise that their producing, on average, three young per nesting effort.
GRAHAM: But trumpeter swans continue to face obstacles, literally. Because the birds fly so low they often plow into power lines that crisscross the landscape. Others die from lead poisoning. Until it was banned in 1991, hunters used lead pellets to shoot ducks and geese. And lot of those pellets are still in the mud where trumpeter swans forage for underwater vegetation. And despite news releases and briefings at state sites to watch out for the birds, some are shot accidentally. Dan Holm, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says some hunters mistake trumpeter swans for snow geese.
HOLM: Well, there is a dramatic difference in size 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 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.
GRAHAM: And it's not just conservation officials who call the accidental shootings unexecusable. Bruce Batt is chief biologist with the sportsman's group, Ducks Unlimited.
BATT: Well, in my opinion, hunters just shouldn't make that mistake. A hunter should be well-prepared when he goes to the field and be able to tell the difference. If we have hunters out there, though, that are actually shooting swans, it's a sign of terrible preparation on their part, or else they're just being criminal and they're just doing something that they knowingly shouldn't be doing. And they're really not hunters, they're criminals.
GRAHAM: In some cases, the shootings are criminal. In 1999, in Illinois, five swan carcasses were found on a road, four of them decapitated, possibly to remove tracking collars. Recently, a Wisconsin teenager was fined for killing a trumpeter swan. Sumner Matteson heads up the trumpeter repopulation effort for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.
MATTESON: Generally, a concerted effort is made to educate hunters about the differences between swans and geese, and it really 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 of the bird, but when you have bird that are killed at close range, it's clearly a case of a malicious act. Fortunately, those are quite few and far between.
GRAHAM: At the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Joe Johnson says despite power lines, lead pellets, and hunters, the trumpeter swan population is up from a few dozen eggs in the 1980s to a 1999 count of well over 2000 birds in the Great Lakes Region.
JOHNSON: The population is growing at about 17 percent per year, despite losses to lead poisoning, vandalistic and accidental shooting, high tension wires, they're doing great.
GRAHAM: Johnson says now that nesting pairs are doing well in northern areas, it's time to start rearing trumpeter swans in Southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. If successful, that would reestablish the birds' migratory patterns from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. For Living on Earth, I'm Lester Graham.
(trumpeting out, music up)
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