Swans make impressive comeback

For nearly a century, trumpeter swans were absent from Wisconsin. The majestic white birds were reintroduced to the state in the 1980s and today are thriving.

A pair of trumpeter swan cygnets are released near Solon Springs after being rounded up and banded this fall. (Submitted Photo)

For nearly a century, trumpeter swans were absent from Wisconsin. The majestic white birds were reintroduced to the state in the 1980s and today are thriving.

"This is one of those wonderful reintroduction success stories," said Patricia Manthey, an avian ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources. "It was started by a group of people with a vision and a lot of enthusiasm, and it has helped return a beautiful bird to Wisconsin."

In January, the Natural Resources Board is expected to approve a proposed rule that will remove the trumpeter swan from the endangered species list in Wisconsin. DNR wildlife biologists and ecologists have studied the population and determined it is healthy enough to remove trumpeter swans from the list. When removed from the endangered species list, trumpeter swans will still be protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

"They're doing really well in the state," Manthey said. "The population continues to grow each year."

As of 2008, 126 trumpeter swan breeding pairs were found across 20 counties in Wisconsin, mostly in the north and central portion of the state. The original reintroduction goal of 20 breeding pairs was exceeded in the late '90s, and the population continued to expand rapidly over the next decade.


Trumpeter swans now have existed in the wild in Wisconsin for about three or four generations, but the first swans introduced came from much further north. Eggs were taken from wild trumpeter swans in Alaska and brought to Wisconsin to be hatched in an incubator. The young swans, called cygnets, were then introduced to the wild. Nesting sites were set up for the trumpeter swans, and the population was monitored closely.

As part of the monitoring process volunteers and DNR employees round up swan cygnets each fall to test their health and mark them with yellow identification bands around their necks. The cygnets can be distinguished from the adults by the smoky gray plumage on their heads and necks.

Lorna Wilson of Solon Springs is active in the birding community and has assisted in the annual banding of the cygnets.

"We get a lot of people together with canoes and kayaks," Wilson said. "She (Manthey) can out-kayak all of us. She's like a torpedo in that thing."

The volunteers circle around the swans to herd them from the wild rice and vegetation where they like to hide. Giving directions overhead is a pilot in a DNR plane.

"It's kind of like this military campaign with the pilot at the bow," Manthey said. "It's quite an operation."

Once in deep water, the cygnets are scooped up and brought to shore.

"They're very gentle birds compared to a goose or a loon," Wilson said.


After the swans are released, volunteers continue to track them through the remainder of the year by reporting sightings.

On Saturday, Wilson went out looking for trumpeter swans with her husband as part of the Christmas Bird Count event held in Solon Springs. She came across one group of banded swans on the St. Croix Flowage that she recognized. When Wilson volunteered to help band trumpeter swan cygnets in the fall, all but one of the swans had been successfully herded to shore. One of the more mature cygnets managed to fly away to the safety of the wild rice and evade capture.

"We know this is the same group because there was one cygnet that wasn't banded," Wilson said.

Aside from the swans and common birds like hawks, bald eagles, grouse and wild turkeys, the Wilsons saw few birds during this year's Christmas Bird Count in Solon.

"Some days are good and some days are bad," Wilson said. "Sometimes it's just being in the right place at the right time."

To help monitor the health of the trumpeter swan population, Wisconsin residents are asked to report sightings, even after the species ceases to be listed as endangered. Manthey said managers are especially interested in the swans that have been banded.

Each swan has a specific code of one letter and two numbers on its yellow neck band. The code, along with the date and location of the sighting should be reported to Manthey at .

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