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Shotgun pellets grounded a big, beautiful trumpeter swan late last fall. This could have been the end of his story. But the tale took a dramatic upturn, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteer rescuers and a first-class wildlife hospital. There's even a heartwarming last chapter, but more about that later.
It's illegal to shoot swans and we'll probably never know whether this was accidental or intentional, but without the efforts of many people, the swan's life would have ended in a Wisconsin marsh.
The good part of the story started with a call to Mary Wicklund, an experienced swan rescuer in Wisconsin: A swan left behind after its family and flock had migrated was a sign of trouble. A team of volunteer rescuers in four kayaks and a canoe put into the water and slowly paddled toward the big, wary bird. They carefully surrounded him and then tightened their circle bit by bit before capturing him. It takes a great deal of skill and finesse -- and time -- to get close enough to bring in one of these big birds.
Next stop: the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, a large, modern clinic that treats thousands of wild animals each year (more than 8,600 in 2010). Veterinarian Dr. Leslie Reed immediately saw the problem on the swan's X-rays: a shotgun pellet in his abdomen and another in his right wing.
"There was a great deal of swelling and bruising, but no broken bones, which was very lucky," Reed said. The swan was weak and dehydrated, but his prognosis looked good. "We had high hopes for his recovery," Reed said.
The swan was treated with antibiotics, painkillers and a drug to prevent lung disease, treatments that make swans the Wildlife Center's most expensive patients. Everyone at the center crossed their fingers that he would recuperate.
Ready to go
Just 10 days after admission, the trumpeter seemed ready for release, and staff members wanted to get him back to his marsh quickly. These swans bond for life, and the rescuers hoped he would reunite with his mate, but had she already traveled too far?
Since "there's no way to test-fly a swan before it's released," as Reed says, there was an element of uncertainty involved. However, the big bird's attitude, physical condition and sturdy flight feathers were all good signs.
A group that included Wildlife Center staffers, several swan rescuers and staff from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources brought the trumpeter back to the marsh where he'd been captured. With a new DNR identification collar on his neck, he would hereinafter be known as Swan 88F. Reed carried him to the water's edge, where he took off like a rocket, big feet slapping the water and wings flapping wildly before he lifted into the sky.
A possible reunion
But what were the chances for a reunion with his mate? A group of trumpeter swans was reported gathering for the winter on the St. Croix River at Hudson, Wis., and the suspense soon ended. A dedicated swan watcher called to report Swan 88F swimming with his mate within this flock. The group of trumpeters is expected to stay at Hudson all winter, as long as the water stays open.
Trumpeter swans are beautiful, charismatic birds. Standing 4 feet tall with wing spans of nearly 8 feet, they have a commanding presence. Reed, who has seen nearly every kind of wild animal pass through the center's doors, admits a special fondness for swans.
The seven-year-old trumpeter now has a chance to reach his normal life expectancy of up to 30 years. Clinic staffers still marvel at his lack of a severe injury, uncomplicated treatment and quick progress to a release. And, because this swan is banded, allowing his movements to be followed, there was one extra reward: Everyone knows how his story turned out, which almost never happens with released wild animals.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at email@example.com.
Hundreds of trumpeter swans spend the winter on the Mississippi River just below the power plant at Monticello, Minn. Monticello has a park for easy viewing next door to the home of the "swan lady," Sheila Lawrence, who feeds the big birds every day. The best time to see swans is between 9:30 and 11 a.m. For directions and some cautionary words about not spooking the swans, check www.monticellochamber.com/Swans.cfm.
Be cautious if you observe a swan that seems to need help. Swan rescues require expertise to avoid harming the bird or suffering an injury yourself. Call the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, 651-486-9453, to report a stranded swan.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, the nation's largest wildlife hospital, relies on donations to keep its doors open 365 days a year. Donors help this nonprofit operation pay for food and medications for their bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian patients and maintain an expert staff. See www.wrcmn.org to donate.
There was a time, as recently as 50 years ago, that trumpeter swans had disappeared from Minnesota. Market hunting and the popularity of swan feathers for clothing in the early 1900s led to the near-extinction of these once fairly common birds.
A number of groups and organizations, notably Three Rivers Park District and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, worked hard to change that, beginning in the 1960s. Carrol Henderson, who directs the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program, estimates the population in Minnesota at 3,000 trumpeters today. Henderson calls this a "big success story," but notes that trumpeters are not yet safe -- they're still listed as a threatened species in Minnesota.