“To form a perfect conception of the beauty and elegance of these Swans, you must observe them when they are not aware of your proximity, and as they glide over the waters of some secluded inland pond. On such occasions, the neck, which at other times is held stiffly upright, moves in graceful curves, now bent forward, now inclined backwards over the body. Now with an extended scooping movement the head becomes immersed for a moment, and with a sudden effort a flood of water is thrown over the back and wings, when it is seen rolling off in sparkling globules, like so many large pearls. The bird then shakes its wings, beats the water, and as if giddy with delight shoots away, gliding over and beneath the surface of the liquid element with surprising agility and grace. Imagine, reader, that a flock of fifty Swans are thus sporting before you, as they have more than once been in my sight, and you will feel, as I have felt, more happy and void of care than I can describe.”
More than 150 years ago, John James Audubon wrote this about the awe inspired by watching trumpeter swans as they go about their business, untroubled by the doings of humans. Thanks to the determined efforts of conservationists across North America, these impressive birds will continue to mesmerize future generations.
Early settlers and explorers in Michigan noted that trumpeter swans were found here in abundance. Starting in the late 1800s, however, an increase in European settlement brought with it the conversion of wetlands to farmlands. It also brought market hunters, who harvested swans to sell their meat to restaurants, fluffy down for pillows, feather quills for pens, and skins and feathers for the fashion and hat trade. Unlike today’s hunters, who provide conservation funding through their hunting license and equipment purchases and only take as many animals as can be replaced through reproduction, market hunters had few regulations and little care for ensuring the future of the species that they decimated.
Thanks to the passage of federal wildlife protection laws in the early 1900s, this unrestrained harvest was curtailed, but the bird’s habitat still was imperiled. By 1933, only 66 trumpeter swans remained in the United States – mostly in remote areas of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. The tide began to turn for trumpeter swans in the 1930s, when the Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect the swans around the Rocky Mountains and hunters rallied for additional hunting fees to protect and restore America’s wetlands.
Through careful stewardship, the trumpeter’s numbers slowly increased until wildlife biologists were able to collect limited numbers of swan eggs from the wild to be added to eggs collected from zoos, which were hatched and raised for release into the wild in Michigan. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these birds were raised until they were 2 years old and then released in high-quality wetlands around the state. Today, over 750 trumpeter swans can be found in Michigan alone and 35,000 swans across the entire United States!
If you venture out to capture the magic that Audubon experienced in the presence of trumpeter swans, be sure to know your quarry. These are the largest waterfowl in the world and can weigh more than 25 pounds. They are 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of over 7 feet – all in all, an intimidating bird. Don’t fear, though, since trumpeter swans are generally shy around people. They even avoid nesting on lakes with a lot of people swimming, boating and fishing. But beware around a swan family – adults are very protective of their young cygnets and may attempt to chase off or attack a person that they think may pose a danger. A canny explorer will know to look for nests atop muskrat lodges on quiet lakes or marshes and will come armed with binoculars and patience.
Today’s conservation challenge for the trumpeter swan is competing with people and the non-native mute swan to find homes to raise the next generation of trumpeters. Lakefront property is highly valued for residential development, and this increased human use may drive off nesting swans. Mute swans, imported from Europe in the 1800s, use the same types of habitats as trumpeter swans and tend to be more aggressive than trumpeters, pushing out our native swan.
When you visit a lake where you see trumpeter swans, respect their privacy and enjoy them from a distance. Try to limit loud and fast recreational activity around trumpeter swans and their nests, and encourage others to do so as well. If you see mute swans on a lake where you live, contact the DNR to find out what can be done to remove this invasive species and help native wildlife. With wise stewardship, we’ll be able to hear the trumpet of the swan for years to come.
The trumpeter swan remains in Michigan year-round; however, is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The year 2016 marks the centennial of the Convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds (also called the Migratory Bird Treaty), signed on Aug. 16, 1916. Three other treaties were signed shortly thereafter with Japan, Russia and Mexico. The Migratory Bird Treaty, the three other treaties signed later, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act form the cornerstones of efforts to conserve birds that migrate across international borders.
The 2016 Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial celebration will include monthly featured bird stories to our DNR Wildlife Viewing email subscribers, celebration events including a weekend of bird-based programming at state parks and visitor centers, an education program for schools and conservation groups, and more.