John James Audubon preferred pens made from the quills of trumpeter swans to depict the fine lines in the feet of bird species, including, in all likelihood, the trumpeter swan. The irony may not have been lost to the famed naturalistpainter, considering the bird was severely overhunted during his lifetime.
With luminous white plumage and a wingspan that can reach eight feet, the worlds largest waterfowl made an easy target. Its flesh fed countless pioneer families. Its skins were manufactured into powder puffs. Its fine, rough feathers were fashioned into fountain pens.
The reason the bird wasnt overly threatened by the demands of a growing millinery trade in the early 1900s, as was the whooping crane, is that by then, there just werent a lot of trumpeters left in the heart of their original range across Canada and the northcentral U.S., says Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. By 1885, they were completely extirpated from Minnesota.
A full century later, in 1987, Henderson played a prominent role in a moment marking a dramatic turnaround for the statelisted threatened species. He released 21 trumpeter swansderived from a small flock in Montanaat Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota.
A trumpeter swan nests at Minnesotas Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, where the species recovery began in 1987. There are now 6,000 trumpeter swans in the state.
Credit: Kelly Blackledge/USFWS
Dissected by three rivers and encompassing more than 42,000 acres of northern hardwood forest, coniferous forest and tallgrass prairie, the refuge seemed to have all the right componentsdiversity of wetland types, lots of surrounding public and tribal land, relatively few power lines, he says. Our odds, we thought, were good here.
Indeed. Over the past 25 years, a total of 358 captiveraised trumpeter swans have been released in Minnesota (98 directly at the refuge). Swan numbers are increasing at an annual rate of 16 to 18 percent. Fears that the species would vanish, leaving only an Audubon illustration as proof of its majesty, have subsided; with more than 6,000 trumpeter swans now in the state, the recovery is a conservation landmark.
The public has grasped onto this as a true success story, like the bald eagle, says Tamarac Refuge wildlife biologist Wayne Brininger. Especially around here, people are really attached to the bird.
In fact, state taxpayers have helped finance the success story. While Tamarac Refuge was purchased with funds from federal Duck Stamp sales a few years after the Duck Stamp program was established in the 1930s, the states coffers were never abundant enough to easily fund management for nongame species like trumpeter swans.
We were the poor stepchild, says Henderson, who reports the statewide budget for nongame conservation from 1977 to 1980 was less than $30,000 per year. Established in 1980, a nongame wildlife checkoff program on state income tax forms came to provide a dependable funding source, through which taxpayers now annually donate more than $1 million, a portion of which goes to trumpeter swan recovery.
In turn, the trumpeter swan is proving its worth. For instance, the city of Monticello, northwest of Minneapolis, purchased a vacant lot adjacent to an area on the Mississippi River used by wintering trumpeters. Crowds now gather on crisp winter mornings for the spectacleand the symphonyof upward of a thousand trumpeting swans alighting on the water.
Even if youre not all that interested in wildlife, youre interested in seeing these guys, says Henderson.
What was once a major liability, the birds conspicuousness is now a valuable selling point for its own conservation. At Tamarac Refuges recent annual bird festival, Henderson, Brininger, and others offered presentations celebrating the recovery programs 25th year. Of course, thanks to the program, festival goers neednt have gone far to see the actual birds themselves.
Ben Ikenson is a New Mexicobased freelance writer.