Outdoors: Conservation success stories: The trumpeter swan

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  • Photo Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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    Ryan

  • Photo Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  • 1

    Ryan

Who doesn’t love swans? They are such graceful animals that fly long distances to their breeding grounds year after year. The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is no exception. It is the largest species of waterfowl in North America, weighing between 15 and 30 pounds and flying upon a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet. In adults, their plumage is all white; baby swans, called cygnets, are light gray in color. These swans are very popular among birders … and hunters, which is the reason for their temporary downfall.

In 1831, Sir John Richardson wrote that the trumpeter swan was “the most common Swan in the interior of the fur-counties … It is to the trumpeter that the bulk of the Swan-skins imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company belong.” At the time, the birds were indeed widespread across the North American continent, with breeding grounds in the United States situated from as far east as Indiana to as far west as Oregon, and in Canada anywhere between James Bay and the Yukon. There were even populations that migrated down into Texas and southern California.

During the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, hunters hoping to sell swan feathers, meat and skins often chose the trumpeter swan. As a result, their numbers dropped like a stone. Their population decline also had a negative effect on the wetland habitats they lived in. These swans would fiercely defend their turf from geese that laid waste to the delicate habitat’s ecology, and they reintroduced certain nutrients back into their native habitat. The frequent hunting also didn’t encourage breeding among the animals, as they are quite sensitive to human disturbance. Before long, 1935 surveys found no more than 69 trumpeter swans in the entirety of the United States. This little population was clinging on around the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

Things seemed bleak for the trumpeter swans, and almost as if these birds would soon become extinct. But conservationists were in for a surprise when an airplane flying over Alaska’s Copper River found a previously unknown population of trumpeter swans, several thousand birds strong! It was time for conservationists to get to work and save these birds from extinction!

Hunting of the trumpeter swan was illegalized, and conservation groups Montana Waterfowl Foundation and the Trumpeter Swan Society began keeping a close eye on wild populations, as well as breeding them in captivity to be released into the wild. The birds are still at risk from loss of habitat, illegal poaching, electrocution via power lines and their unusually low tolerance to lead poisoning, so conservation groups can’t let their guard down. Nevertheless, their numbers continue to rise and the birds are no longer classified as endangered. Surveys of the trumpeter swans of North America found that the bird’s population tripled between the years 2000 and 2005, bumping the number up from 11,156 to 34,804!

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Christian Ryan can be reached at animaladventures1314@gmail.com

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