A young trumpeter swan and two young kingfishers share dramatic stories with a similar arc: Orphans in dire circumstances, they were rescued by good Samaritans and cared for by devoted staff members and volunteers at a major wildlife hospital.

These are their stories, but it’s also the story of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, one of the nation’s largest facilities for sick, injured and orphaned wild creatures.

Located in Roseville, the center is on track to handle more than 12,800 wild patients this year, an astonishing caseload. Equally amazing is the fact that it is funded entirely by donations — no tax dollars or lottery proceeds are involved.

The swan’s story

It’s a mystery how a week-old trumpeter swan came to be found sitting on the side of a road near Dassel, Minn. Crows gathering around the small swan caused a passerby to be concerned, so he pulled over and gently picked up the swan. He searched for its family, but found no swans in the area. After contacting the Rehabilitation Center, he obligingly drove 70 miles to drop off the orphan.

The swan was too young to live on its own, but staff members knew they couldn’t keep it for long: Cygnets (young swans) easily imprint on humans or other animals. It would be difficult to raise the swan without too much human contact, which would render it unable to be released into the wild.

Dr. Leslie Reed, coordinator of the center’s veterinarian educational opportunities, decided that supervised foster care would provide its best chance. She contacted the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has a captive breeding program to rebuild its wild swan population.

“They had a pair [of trumpeter swans] whose nest had failed,” says Reed, “and were willing to give the cygnet a try.” She took the swan to Iowa, where DNR biologist Dave Hoffman used cygnet calls to lure the adult swans near shore. When the birds drew near, he placed the cygnet in the water and watched it swim over to the adults. Over the next several days, Hoffman observed the three swans interacting. The cygnet had found a family.

The kingfishers’ tale

During a construction project, earth-moving equipment tore into the underground burrow of a kingfisher family. In the resulting chaos, a thoughtful foreman rescued as many young birds as he could find and brought them to the Rehabilitation Center.

Two little survivors seemed to be in good health, but nursery coordinator Jessica Madison-Kennedy was still concerned about them. Could they learn the unique feeding style of the kingfisher — which dives into waterways to snap up fish in its beak — without adults to teach them?

Staffers and volunteers started small, first hand-feeding the birds, later perching them on the edge of a large bowl, then graduating them to ever-larger pools filled with fish.

“The kingfishers’ focus on movement seemed to be hard-wired,” said Madison-Kennedy. “They taught themselves to fish.”

She was lucky enough to be there when the first young kingfisher made its breakthrough. One of the youngsters launched itself from a perch, dove underwater and came up with a minnow.

“He settled back on the branch, raised his crest, shook the water off his feathers and looked very proud of himself,” she said.

Once the kingfishers were able to maintain their weight and fly freely, it was time for them to be returned to the wild. Madison-Kennedy and her co-manager Brittany Turner drove the birds to a metro-area lake known to host other kingfishers and released them on a hot summer day.

The center’s staff learned a great deal from these little birds, information that will be shared with other wildlife centers around the world, an important element of the animal hospital’s mission.

The center has become a haven, and, even more important, a source of second chances for birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

“Our caseload has grown almost 50 percent in the last four years,” said Phil Jenni, the center’s executive director. “It’s really a testament to this community that so many come to us with the animals they find, and that they support us to the level they do.”


St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

Kingfisher video

See a short video of the young kingfisher catching fish in a pool at the center: facebook.com/WRCMN/videos/10153540559039020/

Find out more about this ER for wildlife at wrcmn.org.