'Swan mom:' A Washington woman is surrogate for baby trumpeters

A Washington woman has become a surrogate 'swan mom' for a bevy of baby trumpeter swans. Each summer for 14 years she's raised hatchlings for 80 days and released them into the wild.

Five 13-day-old cygnet trumpeter swans gather around "mom", a decoy swan, in their human foster parent Martha Jordan's back yard earlier this week.

All Martha Jordan has to do to get her five baby swans to run across the back yard is pull their "mom" along on a rope – a life-size, plastic swan decoy.

The fuzzy cygnets, two weeks old, scurry to keep up in a scene that can only be described as impossibly cute.

For all intents and purposes, though, Ms. Jordan is really the baby birds' mom.

A wildlife biologist and authority on swans, Jordan agreed to raise the cygnets until they can be released into the wild.

The babies were hatched by a mating pair of swans at Northwest Trek, a wildlife park near Eatonville. In past years, some of the cygnets hatched there were lost to some of the other inhabitants of the park.

"They were becoming lunch for the bald eagles who live at the lake," Jordan said.

Jordan will raise the cygnets for about 80 days, after which they'll be released in Eastern Oregon. They become fully grown and ready to fly in just over 100 days, she said.

Though the cygnets' fledgling feathers are softer than silk, Jordan says petting them can condition the birds to human contact and make it harder for them to make it in the wild.

"I try not to handle them," she said.

Jordan has served as a foster parent for cygnets for 14 of the past 18 years, she said. Usually, she keeps them only for a few weeks and hands them off to another person who has room to house the cygnets as they get bigger.

An adult swan weighs from 25 to nearly 40 pounds and has a wingspan of 7½ to 9 feet, according to Jordan.

The person who usually takes the swans from Jordan can't do it this year, so she is having a larger pen built in the back yard of her south Everett home.

Jordan is coordinator of the Washington Swan Stewards, a subsidiary of the Trumpeter Swan Society, a national non-profit organization. The local group provides education about swans and works on habitat conservation.

Trumpeter swans live only in North America and primarily in the Northwest. The other swan species native to the continent is the tundra swan, some of which also winter in the Northwest.

Trumpeter swans are migratory. Those that winter in Western Washington are among the 26,000 that breed in Alaska in the summer, Jordan said. They leave here in March and return in October.

Trumpeter swans are not endangered but their future is only as stable as that of the farmlands on which they depend for food in the winter, Jordan said.

Swans have historically wintered in local wetlands but as those have disappeared, the birds have adapted by landing at farms and eating the corn and other food put out for the livestock, she said. Farmers generally don't mind, Jordan said.

The Skagit Valley is the largest local wintering area, while the Stillaguamish and Snohomish valleys also attract many of the birds, she said.

Hunting Trumpeter swans in Washington state is illegal. Some of the lakes and fields where the swans land, however, are laden with lead buckshot leftover from decades ago or that's been fired at ducks or other waterfowl that may be legally hunted.

Swans ingest small pebbles as grit to help their digestion, and sometimes mistake the buckshot for pebbles, eat them and die from lead poisoning, she said.

Jordan gets paid for some of her work for the swan groups when grants are available. She goes on rescue missions in addition to banding and documenting the birds' whereabouts. But mostly she makes her living as a massage therapist, she said.

Still, she's recognized around the state as a leading authority on swans. She was asked to write the plan for minimizing the effect on swans from the demolition of the Elwha Dam, she said. Jordan confesses that she's sometimes referred to as the "swan lady."

She didn't set out to be a swan expert. Early in her career as a wildlife biologist working with other birds such as migratory geese, she frequently encountered swans and wound up studying them as part of her work.

In 1985, the state paid her to do a comprehensive swan survey.

"By that time, I was hooked on swans," she said.

It hasn't always been as much fun as watching the cygnets run across the lawn. Since 1999, more than 2,300 swans in the state have died from lead poisoning, according to the swan stewards website.

At the height of the die-off around 2003, "I was handling 4,000 pounds of dead swans," Jordan said.

Other times, she's been beaten up by swans when she got too close to a nest. Swans have claws on their webbed feet and hard edges to the front of their wings that they can swing like clubs.

They also have flexible, serrated bills. "They grab you and pinch and then twist and pull," she said.

Still, when she encounters a banded adult swan that she raised as a baby, or when people tell her stories of how swans have inspired them, it makes it all worthwhile, she said.

"You learn about humans and their connection to the land, and all that has come to me through the swan," she said.

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