A black swan — a bird far from where it belonged — died on Lake Harriet last week. Probably because it was so beautiful.
Black swans live in Australia as wild birds. Here in the Midwest, they are curiosities and decoration. You can buy them like a holiday wreath or an inflatable Santa.
Someone somewhere had purchased this swan, but it either escaped or was set free.
The dead swan (or another of its exotic species) had spent much of the summer on river backwaters in Bloomington. It had been seen and noted by local birders.
But in mid-December, just as a wave of Arctic air approached, a black swan appeared on Lake Harriet.
For two days, the bird was seen swimming with a flock of mallards in a shrinking patch of open water.
Many birders saw it, and immediately understood the problem.
The species is said to be winter-hardy, but open water is essential. Swans, like loons, must run across open water to gain air speed.
Susan Spannaus of Minneapolis went to Lake Harriet to see the swan. She reported to a local birding network that the bird “looked so cold. It wasn’t eating or swimming, just sitting on the ice.”
On Dec. 17 the swan, which had ice on its feathers, died and presumably sank.
There had been talk in the local birding community about trying to save it.
Birders called the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, which cares for injured, sick or orphaned wild animals, but does not do rescues.
“I felt so bad about it,” said the center’s executive director, Phil Jenni, “but our permits restrict us to wild populations.”
The swan was reported to Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, but the officers who investigated said they couldn’t find the bird, said Sarah McKenzie, media relations coordinator for the city of Minneapolis.
A few birders even talked about trying to rescue the bird, but the animal — and the icy water — were deemed too dangerous. (Trumpeter swan wings, for example, are defense weapons that can break human bones.)
In the end, no one could save the bird.
Swans of several species are bred for sale in North America, bought by collectors or by developers or building owners to lend drama to a hotel or resort pond. A pair of black swans sell for about $3,000.
Purchased swans often come with identification bands and with wings pinioned, which means that feathers have been removed to prevent flight. There is no indication the Lake Harriet bird was banded. And it certainly could fly.
According to Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife division, Minnesota has 15 game farms with a current population of 101 birds. At least two of the farms have black swans for sale.
Both native and nonnative swans can be raised on game farms in Minnesota. However, the nonnative birds may not be released as free-fliers, said Henderson.
So, you can own a black swan. You can prevent it from flying. You can put it on a pond.
But that will never be the same as the wild bird in its wild place.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.