By Howard Meyerson
Fifty years ago the plight of Trumpeter Swans was a cause for concern in North America. The majestic birds were perched on the brink of extinction. America’s largest waterfowl species was in need of a helping hand.
Today their status has greatly improved due to reintroduction efforts by government wildlife agencies, conservation organizations, Indian tribes, and public utilities. Their numbers have increased across much of the continent. Reintroduction work continues in some locales. But here in Michigan the Trumpeters are doing very well; their recovery is a significant conservation success, according to state officials.
“This still needs to be vetted within the agency, have a public review, and be finalized by the legislature, but we will recommend in the next 12 to 18 months that the Trumpeter Swan be removed from the Michigan Threatened and Endangered Species List,” said Dan Kennedy, the endangered species coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Their population made a drastic upswing between 2000 and 2010.”
Approximately 756 Trumpeters now inhabit Michigan waters, according to DNR survey records, a dramatic change from none in 1986 when the state’s swan reintroduction efforts began. Michigan’s recovery goal was modest: having two flocks of 100 swans each by year 2000. That goal was reached in 1997, according to Kennedy. It was accomplished by rearing and later releasing two-year-old Trumpeter Swans at select locations around the state.
Highest recorded numbers
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2010 North American Trumpeter Swan Survey, the last available, reports 46,225 Trumpeter Swans were found in North America that year, 33 percent more than 2005 and the highest number since the survey began in 1968. Fewer than 70 were known of in 1933, according to the Trumpeter Swan Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the restoration and conservation of the species. Trumpeters were once abundant all across North America.
“We know they are increasing and they are occupying areas they did not before,” explains Barb Avers, the Michigan DNR’s waterfowl program specialist. “They are still on the state [threated and endangered species] list, but not the Fed list. We don’t anticipate any setbacks [from delisting]. They have been doing well enough on their own…. I think we will continue to see growth as we [further] bring down the mute swan population.”
Mute Swans, which are identified by an orange bill, black face, and bulbous black knob at the base of the bill, are an aggressive swan species
known to drive Trumpeter Swans and other waterfowl out of their wetland breeding areas. They are found in every Michigan county, according to Avers. Her agency began a local control program in the 1960s which was stepped-up in recent years with a goal of reducing Michigan’s Mute Swan population to fewer than 2,000 by 2030.
“We’ve had lots of reports about them driving Trumpeters out, and when we remove the Mute Swan, we see Trumpeter Swans nesting,” Avers said. “Fortunately the Mute Swan population is going down. The 2015 state estimate is 8,700 Mute Swans, compared to 2010, when we had 15,000 and began a more intensive effort to remove (i.e., kill) them. Having that many Mute Swans on the landscape was definitely a concern. Trumpeters don’t face that many threats, but that is one.”
Early restoration effort
Michigan’s Trumpeter restoration effort began in 1986 as part of a nationwide restoration effort that had begun two decades before. But the
Trumpeter’s demise dates back to the 1800s when European settlers began clearing land, draining and filling marshes, and the swans were pursued by unregulated market hunters for meat, skins, down, and quills.
Michigan’s swan release program was coordinated by the late Joe Johnson, a biologist and manager for the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, part of Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, where the program was headquartered. Johnson, who eventually traveled to Alaska to get Trumpeter Swan eggs, is credited with overcoming a number of challenges in the early stages of the reintroduction program that ended in 1993.
“A total of 124 Trumpeters were released as two year olds,” Johnson penned in the 2011 Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas, the year before he died. About a third of the swans were released in the eastern UP, another third in the NLP and the remainder in the southwestern LP. Many of the swans were hatched and reared from eggs collected in Alaska; many others were donated by major zoos and private aviculturists. From 1994 to 2005, 122 more were released in the western UP, northeastern LP, northwestern LP and southeastern LP by Consumers Energy Corporation, Native American tribes, and private citizens. The restoration effort was sponsored by the DNR Nongame program and MSU’s Kellogg Bird Sanctuary.”
“They reared all the eggs, did all the incubation, and it took some trial and effort to figure out whether they could release the swans as two-year-olds when they were ready to mate,” recalls Kara Haas, Science Education and Outreach coordinator for the biological station. “One thing they tried to do early on was incubate trumpeter eggs under mute swans in the wild. It didn’t work. The swans wouldn’t raise them—and they didn’t survive.
“They also had to find release sites where there was no waterfowl hunting, where lead shot was not an issue. And they eventually found that by raising the young swans in family units, they wouldn’t interbreed…It’s pretty encouraging that they did breed and seem to be doing OK.”
Michigan Audubon also had an important role in the swan’s recovery. Three pairs of young Trumpeters were released in 1991 at its Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary in Pleasant Lake. One of the swans died that summer and the other two were removed due to sickness, recalls executive director Jonathan Lutz. All three suffered from lead poisoning. But two pairs were introduced that same year at the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellevue, home to Michigan Audubon’s annual CraneFest event. That pair remains today and is reproducing.
“It’s remarkable that Baker was one of the original release sites, and we continue to have successful reproduction there,” Lutz said. “I believe that five cygnets fledged there this year. It’s an important spot for them and offers the public an opportunity to see conservation in action.”
Appears in Jack Pine Warbler, Magazine of Michigan Audubon.