Thirty-five years of coaxing the return of trumpeter swans to Minnesota -- starting with 40 birds and 50 eggs -- have paid off. Just cup your ear and listen.

Thousands of the birds send up their clamorous, horn-like honks every morning from the Mississippi River at Monticello, where they congregate for winter corn feeds.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey taken Jan. 5 to 8 at 20 locations in 14 counties found more than 5,500 swans, confirming that "the population of trumpeter swans in Minnesota has more than doubled in the last five years."

"The results are higher than anyone expected," said Larry Gillette, wildlife manager for Three Rivers Park District.

The big, white swans with the regal carriage and long, gracefully curved necks -- among the largest birds in North America -- were hunted to extinction in Minnesota in the 1800s.

In the 1960s, Three Rivers, then known as Hennepin Parks, started to restore the state's trumpeter swan population with 40 birds brought from a national wildlife refuge in Montana.

The state's Department of Natural Resources joined the effort in the late 1980s, with 50 trumpeter eggs it ferried here from Alaska.

Now the swans are thriving "beyond our wildest expectations," said DNR regional wildlife specialist Katie Haws, who remembers the 1987 release in northwest Minnesota of 21 birds raised from the Alaska eggs.

"They are some of the most beautiful birds," Haws said. "To have them be visible to many people in many spots in the state -- it's a wildlife success story."

The Swan Lady of Monticello

Trumpeter swans are protected and may not be hunted. But they are multiplying also because people like Sheila and Jim Lawrence of Monticello feed the birds all winter, keeping them safe from the perils of migration.

The vast gathering of the birds on the Mississippi at the Lawrences' riverfront home is the "most spectacular aggregation of swans you are going to see anywhere in the eastern United States," Gillette said.

The swans are drawn to Monticello in the winter because the warm discharge from the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant keeps the river channel open.

Twenty-five years ago, Sheila Lawrence -- now known locally as the Swan Lady -- began feeding geese and ducks in the river. Fifteen trumpeters showed up for the first time in the winter of 1987-88.

Now they number more than 2,000. This winter, Jim Lawrence, who is subbing for his wife while she recovers from illness, is putting out 1,600 to 2,000 pounds of corn a day.

"The volume of birds has increased and the cost of corn has gone crazy, $6.40 or $6.50 a bushel," he said.

Donations for corn are welcome; just mail them in care of the Swan Lady of Monticello, MN 55362. "The post office knows what to do with it," Lawrence said.

As he walks down to the riverbank in his knee-high boots, Lawrence looks like a farmer heading to the barn.

"If I don't come down, they start walking up in the yard," he said.

No kernels left

The birds start flying in about 8:30 to 9 a.m. The feedings start between 9:30 and 10 a.m. and continue to 11 or 11:30 a.m., Lawrence said.

The Lawrences take corn deliveries once a week. They move the feed down to the river with an auger that empties into a tub next to the water.

From the tub, Lawrence ferries heavy bucket loads of corn to 10 bins in the shallows of the river. He tosses some kernels into the water to acquaint younger birds with the routine.

"Within half an hour after I am done feeding, there is not a kernel anywhere," Lawrence said.

The scene draws flocks of people to Monticello's Swan Park on Mississippi Drive next to the Lawrence home.

"It is absolutely incredible seeing this many of them here," said Gina Stillwell of Big Lake, who watched the swans from the park last week. "What surprised me most was getting out of the car clear across the street and I could hear them already."

Scratch the buffalo

The DNR gave its blessing to the private feedings, recognizing that they were helping the birds rebound.

Carrol Henderson, who supervises the DNR's nongame wildlife program, "comes nearly every year and looks and smiles," Lawrence said. It was Henderson who flew to Alaska for the trumpeter eggs.

Three Rivers became a champion of the swans because Fred King, the first park board chairman, wanted to find an animal that would call attention to park district efforts to acquire land and restore wildlife habitat, Gillette said.

"The first thought was a buffalo,'' he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife instead recommended the trumpeter swan. It took years of trial and error to get the swans established, but now "we have birds nesting throughout the parks'' and people can see them in the spring, summer and fall, Gillette said.

That success enabled Three Rivers to close its swan restoration program two years ago.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711