Sue and I were just ready to turn off of I-35 at Story City when we saw them, two magnificent pure white trumpeter swans, winging their southwest way over snowy fields and into a fiery sunset. The sighting was short, but as beautiful as any winter greeting card. It might never have happened were it not for the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the past fifty years. When I was a boy first becoming interested in birds and other wildlife I knew trumpeter swans only from pictures in books. The specie was teetering on the brink of extinction with only a few hundred left in the world. A few non-migratory pairs still lived in the Yellowstone Park area, and the rest nested in remote wilderness Alaska.
The trumpeter swan is among the world’s largest flying birds with adults sometimes exceeding 30 pounds; at least double the size of even the giant race of Canada geese (a bird that was even closer to extinction when I was a boy). Trumpeters nested across northern North America at least as far south as Iowa, but habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting during the late 1800s had nearly eliminated them. There were so few left that they couldn’t recolonize their old native breeding range even when new hunting laws began to be enforced early in the 1900s. The last few surviving giant Canada geese were discovered wintering in Rochester, Minn., in the mid-1900s. They were captured and an extensive captive breeding program began. Early success with that program led to the giant race of Canada geese becoming almost a pest specie in many cities across the US today. It also spurred hope that something similar might be possible with trumpeter swans. Thus began an effort that took much longer and proved to be far more difficult.
Precious swan eggs from a few surviving wild nests were harvested and incubated. The young were raised in captivity and eventually had their flight feathers clipped so they couldn’t fly away. Great effort was exercised to maximize diversity in the very limited gene pool that was available to begin the captive breeding efforts. There were numerous setbacks in the long road to recovery. Some of the young birds were allowed to fly free in an attempt to restore wild populations in areas where they once bred. Accidents happened, and precious birds were lost when they hit power lines as they flew. Such large birds aren’t very maneuverable. Their extra long necks allowed them to reach deep into wetlands as they fed. Some picked up spent lead shot from pond bottoms and died of lead poisoning. The mounted flying swan in the multipurpose room at the McFarland Park Conservation Center is one of those. Sadly, some were also shot. The usual excuse was that the shooter thought it was a snow goose. The excuse was a bit hard to accept since snow geese are a much smaller bird that weighs only about ¼ of what a swan does and also sports conspicuous black wing tips. A few were even killed deliberately by vandals at the ponds where they were being raised.
Bit by bit, ever so slowly, the population of trumpeter swans grew. Free-flying wild birds began to be seen at random spots around the country by the late 1990s. Swans, like geese, learn their migration routes by following their parents, and these newly wild swans had no parents to follow. They wandered. Slowly, over the years, migration traditions and wintering sites began to be established. Widely scattered wild nesting pairs began to show up and raise young. All along the way, across North America, were people who cared for the growing swan population. Some were professional biologists, but many more were dedicated private citizens. It took decades, but the sighting of two wild swans flying into the sunset tell me that it was worth every bit of that effort. You can see wild trumpeter swans almost any day this winter at Ada Hayden Lake on the north side of Ames. There isn’t much open water left after the cold spell we’ve been having, but swans, geese and ducks will likely stay there as long as there is even a little bit of open water.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.