BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
The ice on our lakes went out very early this year. As soon as the slightest margin of open water appeared around the fringes of our lakes and marshes, there were many reports of swan observations. They seemed content to swim near road bridges and culverts, places where moving water is less likely to ice up in the early days of spring.
Swans mostly eat vegetation, stretching their long graceful necks to the lake bottom. Unfortunately, this also makes them extremely susceptible to lead poisoning. Even though the use of lead shot was outlawed for waterfowl hunting decades ago, the lead deposited in wetland muck prior to that time persists indefinitely, and is easily taken up by these birds. The first swan I ever saw up close was suffering from lead poisoning at about this time of year. It could barely hold its head up, and mucus dribbled out of both nostrils. We placed the ailing bird in a dog kennel and hauled it to a rehabilitator, who was not optimistic about its chances of survival. This was my first experience with lead poisoning, and sadly, far from my last.
The trumpeter swan is a species of special concern in Wisconsin, because it has come back from the brink of extinction.
We have three swan breeds in Wisconsin. The trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl species in North America, measuring six feet long and weighing 25 pounds. It is an all-white bird with a heavy, pointed black bill. The black from the bill goes up and surrounds the eye, and there is a narrow, salmon-red stripe along the lower mandible. The call of the swan earns the name trumpeter, because it sounds much like a brass instrument.
This bird can live for 20-30 years, and mates for life. Once you have a pair establish in an area and raise young, you will likely see more; the females, when they mature and find a mate, will lead that mate back to where she was raised so she can raise her own brood there. The trumpeter swan is a species of special concern in Wisconsin, because it has come back from the brink of extinction. The swan feathers were once coveted for women’s headgear and elegant quill pens. Today they enjoy special protection and their numbers have slowly increased.
The tundra swan, our other native swan species, is also all white. It has a shorter black bill, and the black comes up to but not around the eye, and there is usually some yellow visible. It is about half the size of the enormous trumpeter swan. Its call is high-pitched and quavering, sounding more like a Canada goose. This swan is also sometimes called the whistling swan. Explorer Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, sent out by President Thomas Jefferson, was the first to refer to them as whistling because of the sound they make in flight. They live very far north, so they do not nest here—they pass through in the spring and fall as they travel between their nesting grounds at the Arctic Circle and their southern wintering grounds along the eastern seaboard.
The last swan, the mute swan, is not native to Wisconsin. The mute swan has an orange bill with a prominent black bulge below the forehead—think of the bird you associate with love canal boats, fancy weddings, ballets and fairy tales. Unfortunately, they are an undesirable non-native species that harasses native ducks and geese, and does a lot of damage to aquatic plants. This bird is so aggressive, in fact, that it oftentimes chases children, adults, and dogs at parks where they have taken up residence. Because they are graceful, beautiful birds, they were brought to the United States to beautify parks, ponds, and small lakes. In areas where water stays open year-round, these swans persist, and are sometimes the target of local eradication efforts.
Trumpeter swans are another example of a success story in the works. Once thought to be doomed to extinction, careful conservation efforts have helped to bring their numbers back. Hopefully, we can look forward to enjoying hearing their brassy call in the spring skies and seeing their bright white bodies floating gracefully on the waters of the Northwoods for many generations to come.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.