Swans Trumpet Once Again

Trumpeter swans gathering

Trumpeter swans gather along a river’s edge in winter (the dark object in center is a mallard duck, tiny by comparison).
Photo credit: Ben Wilson

trumpeter swan

A curious trumpeter swan
Photo credit: Ben Wilson

A trumpeter parent and two offspring

A trumpeter parent and two offspring from the previous summer swim in winter waters.
Photo credit: Ben Wilson

by Val Cunningham
Contributing Writer

Trumpeter swans are back from the brink, but they left one thing behind—the urge to migrate.

It’s possible to see trumpeter swans in Minnesota these days, a remarkable thing when you consider that just 50 years ago there were no wild trumpeter swans left in the state. They’d disappeared after being relentlessly hunted for their feathers and skins and meat for the table.

The restoration of a trumpeter swan population to Minnesota is a true wildlife success story. I’ve been fascinated by trumpeters not only because their population in Minnesota has gone from zero to thousands of swans in little more than 40 years. Also intriguing is the fact that the restoration effort is like a puzzle that’s missing one key piece: trumpeter swans are growing up and nesting in Minnesota, but nearly all of them remain here all year long. They’re not migrating, as they did in the past.

Some 150 years ago, trumpeter swan families—mom, dad, and that year’s cygnets—lifted off in late autumn and traveled to Missouri, Arkansas or Texas. They’d return at ice out in February or March to start the cycle of breeding all over again.

Swan relocation

We owe the return of Minnesota’s swans to efforts by dedicated wildlife managers at Three Rivers Park District and the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program, plus a whole host of other agencies and individuals.

Restoration started in the 1960s, when the park district brought young swans in from a tiny remnant population living in a remote, high-altitude area in Montana, to release in Hennepin County.

The nongame program embarked on a statewide effort in the 1980s. As part of that, Carrol Henderson, the program’s supervisor, made three trips to Alaska, which had a growing population, picking up 50 trumpeter swan eggs each year. (I’ve always wished I could see Henderson getting off a plane lugging those suitcases with specially constructed compartments for that valuable cargo.)

The swan restoration program is obviously now a major success, with 5,500 big birds counted in the most recent survey, a year ago. (And these are big birds: at 4-ft. tall, the top of a swan’s head will line up with your rib cage.)

“We were all pleased and amazed by the swans’ rapid recovery in our state,” said Henderson. “We’ve achieved the recovery of the population, but the birds are writing their own book as they adapt to our current environment.”

Live and learn

Trumpeter swans learn life’s lessons from their parents, but the swans brought into Minnesota arrived without mentors. As these swans grew up, many of them moved in autumn to the closest open water, often near power plants and dams. Here they found underwater vegetation, and learned to forage nearby for corn and potato scraps in harvested fields. There was little reason to leave.

Those few pioneering trumpeters that did move farther south in autumn often encountered an inhospitable environment. Entire families might be wiped out by poachers, or were mistaken for tundra swans, which are legally hunted in some areas of the South, or found wetlands so altered there was little to forage on.

Many of Minnesota’s swans now stack up in places like Monticello, where up to 40 percent of the state’s trumpeters may gather during the coldest weather. Such concentrations of wildlife are worrisome, since a single illness or other event can wipe out a big proportion of a population.

Since we can’t make the swans leave, we have to wait for them to teach themselves to migrate, one family group at a time. Once a family travels South, then returns to Minnesota, their offspring will follow that route in subsequent years. There’s greater cooperation now from wildlife agencies in southern states, so swans should have a better chance. About 10 percent of Minnesota’s swans have become migrants, most of these flying to Arkansas for the winter.

“It takes patience,” Henderson says. “The swans are going to have to create their own migratory traditions.”

They’re never going to be as plentiful as Canada geese, another population recovery success story. Trumpeters need a lot of elbow room during nesting season, says Madeleine Linck, wildlife technician with Three Rivers Park District.

“They’re so territorial that they drive off other swans, including their offspring from the previous year,” she notes. “They’re big birds and they need a lot of food resources.”

A great deal of hard work has gone into getting the swans this far. Now it’s time for nature, and the birds, to write the next chapters.

But if you’ve ever wondered about those dollars you dedicate to the “chickadee checkoff” on your state tax form, be assured that a big chunk has gone to restore trumpeter swans to Minnesota.

Spectacular view

Monticello’s riverside Swan Park is the best-known site in Minnesota for viewing trumpeter swans in winter. Click here for directions and tips on viewing the swans.

Learn more

There’s a wealth of information about trumpeter swans at the Trumpeter Swan Society website.

Swan aid

Two things you can do to help trumpeter swans thrive:
1. Restock your fishing tackle box with non-lead jigs and sinkers (lead kills swans).
2. Buy a Duck Stamp, proceeds of which fund wetlands acquisition, a benefit to all wildlife.

Swan stats

Trumpeters are our largest waterfowl, weighing between 17 and 30 pounds and measuring more than 7 ft. from wingtip to wingtip. They may live up to 30 years in the wild and they’re named for their distinctive nasal honks, sometimes compared to the sound of a French horn. Although their population is recovering, the swans are still listed as a threatened species in Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minnesota resident Val Cunningham, leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines.