Swans

Last week I wrote about visiting the Porcupine Lake Wilderness in Bayfield County and how a highlight of this trip was hanging out for a few days with some trumpeter swans. So it seems to me like a good time to take a closer look at these massive waterfowl and see what they're up to. Along with being stunning, elegant birds, they're a remarkable conservation success story.

Trumpeter swans are North America's biggest native waterfowl. The largest ones reach up to seven feet in length and can weigh 35 pounds or more. In spite of their huge size, they still have a graceful, lovely profile that's unmistakable when seen in ponds or along a shoreline. This beauty proved deadly to the species, which was nearly eliminated thanks to demand for the feathers in women's fashions and quill pens in the 19th century. By the 1930s there were only 69 documented birds left in North America. Aggressive conservation and reintroduction of trumpeter swans has led to dramatic increases in their numbers, especially in the past 20 years. Here in Wisconsin, they were reintroduced in 1989 ­— 100 years after they ceased to live here in the wild — and were removed from the endangered species list 20 years after that. It's no longer a rarity to see them in the wild, but it's always a treat.

Trumpeter swans breed and spend their summers around shallow bodies of water with plenty of aquatic vegetation. They especially like beaver ponds or marshes with muskrat populations because they often build their nests on top of beaver and muskrat lodges. They also make their own mounds, but either way the nest is usually surrounded by water to discourage predators. If the water isn't enough to thwart an intruder, the swans' aggressive protection of the nest will usually do the trick. I don't recommend that paddlers or anglers get too close to these birds (did I mention they are quite large?) Hilariously, trumpeter swan pairs perform a victory dance together after repelling an intruder, where they face off and jiggle their wings while loudly trumpeting. It's like an avian touchdown performance. Please don't try to instigate this yourself: human disturbance can lead a swan pair to abandon a nest or growing babies. They dig for plants much like ducks, tipping facedown into the water with their behinds in the air as they root around for underwater plants. This sometimes leads to their heads being stained brown thanks to the tannins in the mucky lake bottom where they feed.

Trumpeter swans generally mate for life and take their time as couples before settling down and having kids. Young birds usually pick out a nesting site around age 2 but it may be several more years before they breed there. This is an encouraging fact to keep in mind when you see a mated pair without cygnets like I did at Porcupine Lake. I'm hopeful that these two talkative birds were youngsters who will be back in the future to start a family. Juvenile trumpeters are a pale gray color with some pink in their bills. If you see a group of them together, they're most likely a sibling group under the age of 2. They usually migrate to overwinter where there's open water and seem to prefer the Pacific Northwest; some areas in the intermountain West and around the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge have year-round populations. During the summer season, if you think you're seeing a swan it's almost certainly a trumpeter. During the migration, tundra swans and snow geese are the other white birds we see in the area and the disctinctly trumpety sound is the best way to separate them if you're watching from a distance. In Wisconsin, we tend to see them most often in the central sands areas, the Burnett/Polk county region, and on a diagonal from Oconto over to Douglas counties. One thing I learned while fact-checking this column was that female swans are called "pens" and male swans are called "cobs." This makes no sense to me, but I'll still enjoy these comeback kids whenever I'm lucky enough to see them.

Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.

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