No swan song for the trumpeter

"I see them," the pilot, John Bronson, radios down to the group of seven kayakers. "Pair of trumpeter swans and a cygnet spotted to the north."

The kayakers paddle cautiously through the weedy waters of Cedar Bend, by the St. Croix River in northwestern Wisconsin, and await instructions.

"Mary and Chet, move northwest. Jerry, move east. Sumner, hug the shore.

"Pat, Dave, Joe, take cover on the east side of the peninsula." The pilot circles. "Mary, Chet, flank the cygnet.... Sumner, Jerry, move in on the adults."

Suddenly two large swans take to the air. "We have flyers," the pilot says.

"That's too bad," says Pat Manthey, field coordinator for Wisconsin's trumpeter swan reintroduction program. She's also heading this tagging mission. "I've been trying to get that female for years."

Attention shifts to the baby. This cygnet (SIG-net), or baby swan, cannot fly yet. It was born in early July and won't take to the air for another few weeks. It seems more than willing to cooperate.

Swan takes a kayak ride

Mary and Chet form a V with their kayaks to trap the bird. Chet Anderson calmly reaches into the water and lifts it out. He places it between his knees. The swan rests its head on top of the kayak and watches patiently as its captors paddle ashore.

Once on land, Mary Griesbach, Joe Lysdahl, and Jerry McNally hold the bird as Ms. Manthey places a three-inch-tall yellow collar around its neck. The tag will help biologists identify the bird as it matures, migrates, and mates. Manthey also crimps a numbered metal band around its leg. "The leg band usually lasts longer than the collar," she says.

After taking a blood sample and a swab to test the health and determine the sex of the bird, it is wrapped in a net and weighed: 22 pounds. A good-size cygnet!

I get to carry the young swan down to the water. I put one arm under its webbed feet and the other under its chest. I wade out until the swan is fully supported by water, and then gently release it. The cygnet ruffles its feathers as it glides away.

"Wow, what a sight," Anderson says.

As this is the last trumpeter to be tagged this season, everyone takes a moment to reflect on the fact that there are baby trumpeters in the wilds of Wisconsin.

Fifteen years ago, trumpeter swans did not exist in this state except in captivity. Only 392 lived in all the lower 48 states.

Trumpeters used to live throughout the United States and Canada. (See map.) In the 1800s, the birds were hunted for their meat, their feathers (to make quill pens and hat decorations), and their skin (to make powder puffs).

"Everyone just expected them to go extinct," Manthey says. She's an avian ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin decided to try to reintroduce the birds. In Wisconsin at least, the success has been encouraging. Today, more than 300 trumpeters swim and fly in the wild there.

The story of the swan-egg snatcher

The recovery program started with a few "stolen" eggs from Alaska.

For eight years, Sumner Matteson, coordinator of Wisconsin's trumpeter-swan program, flew to Minto Flats in east- central Alaska in the spring to obtain 50 trumpeter swan eggs.

"I didn't know what to expect when I first started collecting eggs," Mr. Matteson says. "I carried a gray suitcase to put the eggs in and hoped the parents would move away from the nest when I arrived. Most did." The ones who didn't, he left alone.

Because swans lay up to nine eggs each year, Matteson often took several eggs from a nest, leaving at least two for the parents to hatch.

The eggs were flown to the Milwaukee (Wis.) County Zoo in special crates. While waiting for them to hatch, Matteson serenaded the eggs with taped adult trumpeter swan calls. "By the time they hatched," Matteson says, "they were used to adult vocalizations."

After hatching, the cygnets were raised in one of two ways:

In the decoy-rearing program, the birds were "imprinted" on an artificial life-sized adult swan. "Imprinting is an instinctive reaction of young waterfowl," Manthey says. Hatchlings identify with the first thing they see that's moving. In the wild, this is the parent birds. "We take advantage of this instinct to teach it to follow the decoy," Manthey says.

It worked. Wherever this decoy led, the cygnets followed. But how do humans move a fake bird without being spotted by the babies?

By masquerading as a muskrat house!

Every morning, a crew of assistants dressed in a camouflaged inner tube and chest waders. On top of the tube was a fake muskrat house made of chicken wire and bamboo.

The disguised assistants led the babies to food, shelter, or safety by pulling a line attached to the decoy. At night, the cygnets slept in an enclosed area.

Learning 'follow me!' – in swan talk

To ensure that the cygnets learned the necessary trumpeter swan calls, a small speaker was put on the decoy and hooked up to a tape recorder. When trouble arose, the assistants would play the "Follow me!" call. This went on for three months, until the swans could take care of themselves.

In the second group, swans were raised on their own in large pens. These 30-by-15-foot fenced-in areas were on both land and water. This group had no adult swans – fake or real – to show them what to do. They learned by heeding their instincts and interacting with the other baby swans.

At two years of age, the birds were released at various wildlife areas throughout Wisconsin. Researchers hoped the swans would learn to identify this area as their new home. Their wing feathers were clipped so they'd stay in one place awhile.

This also worked. The introduced birds are making a home and raising their young here in Wisconsin. Now their babies have grown up and are having babies, too. Matteson hopes to remove the bird from the endangered species list someday soon.

"When I hear the trumpeters vocalizing," Matteson says, "I'm not just hearing part of the landscape. I am hearing something my ancestors heard 150 years ago. These birds represent our past and our future."

Facts about North American swans

• Trumpeter swans, named for their loud, trumpetlike call, are one of two species of swans native to North America. The other native swan, the tundra (formerly called the whistling swan), is white like the trumpeter, but slightly smaller. (The swans you see on TV and in movies are mostly mute swans, brought here from Europe. They're not really mute, but their call is relatively quiet.)

• Adult trumpeters weigh between 21 and 35 pounds. They have wingspans of up to eight feet.

• A male swan is called a 'cob'; a female is a 'pen.' Swans less than one year old are called cygnets.

• Swans are vegetarians. They eat mostly plants that grow underwater, such as pondweed and water milfoil. They may also eat the leaves of some plants that grow above water, such as wild rice, arrowhead, bur reed, and bulrush.

• Adults swans are pure white, while cygnets are gray. The birds may also have a hint of brown on their heads and necks. Such discoloration is the result of a high iron content (ferrous oxide) in the water.

• The swans' broad, flat bills have fine tooth-like serrations along the edges so they can strain out aquatic plants from the water. Their long necks and strong feet allow them to uproot plants in water as deep as four feet.

• Swan pairs mate for life.

• Swans, like many birds, swallow small pebbles to help digest their food. Sometimes the 'pebbles' are really lead pellets from shotgun shells. Eating these toxic lead pellets is the No. 1 cause of death for trumpeters, though lead shot has been banned for more than a decade in this country.

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