Putting down roots, giving them wings
ELY– Many drivers along Ely road have recently been treated to an uncommon sight.
Two trumpeter swans have made the wetland pond just south of Ely their new home for the summer.
And perhaps, if all goes as planned, forever.
The male and female pair was released on May 18 as part of an Iowa Department of Natural Resource (DNR) program to repopulate trumpeter swans in Iowa. Prior to the settlement of Iowa, the bird was common in the state until the 1930s, when the swan population began to diminish. Since 1993 the DNR has been working to repopulate Iowa with trumpeter swans.
In this instance, the birds were bred in captivity, raised for about 18 months in a protected wetland environment where they are safe from predators and fed by humans, though the cygnets were kept with their parents, a flightless breeding pair, so they could learn to adapt to a wild environment. They are now old enough to be released to their natural wild habitat.
The swans released in the Atherton wetland area near Ely– a property leased by Kirkwood Community College and used for various education programs– were hatched and raised in a facility near Clear Lake, said Matt Rissler, an aquatic education specialist who works with Kirkwood through a DNR grant program, Fish Iowa. Rissler conducts education presentations for schools and other groups on such topics as water quality, water safety and aquatic habitats. Just before the swans were released in Johnson County last month, Rissler spent his morning talking with College Community School second graders about the two feathered friends.
The male and female– or cob and pen– are about 18 months old, about the right age to let them fend for themselves against their natural predators in the wild; in Iowa, hatchlings and young cygnets are in danger from snapping turtles, raccoons and raptors like hawks or eagles, while older swans may be preyed upon by coyotes or foxes.
At a year-and-a-half, these swans are not quite fully-grown, Rissler said. A mature trumpeter swan can get up to 40 pounds, with an 8-foot wingspan, making swans the biggest waterfowl in North America. In the wild, trumpeter swans eat leaves, seeds, roots, insects and crustaceans, and are expected to live about 12 years; however, Rissler said the longest-living swans of record lived in captivity for 32 years.
For the next decade, this pair of swans is expected to spend their spring, summer and fall months on the pond near Ely, flying southward– perhaps to Kansas, Missouri or Oklahoma– for the winter, and returning to Iowa to hatch cygnets of their own.
“The hope is that they will come back to this area,” said Rissler. “They just have an instinct that helps them remember where they were released, and they should return to this general area each year.” Even if the swans do return, it could be a year or so before the pair begins nesting, if at all. Some states’ trumpeter swan restoration efforts have been unsuccessful in establishing breeding pairs at release sites.
“These two were out of the same nest, so there is a better chance they might nest together, but Kirkwood has an adult pair that were sort of thrown together, and we have not been successful in getting them to breed yet,” said Rissler.
A female swan will typically lay three to nine eggs in a season. However, it’s a dangerous world for the hatchlings; often, only about half survive. Parasites, predators, hunters and even power lines are hazards for the birds.
But the swans are, indeed, birds of a feather, and will stick together through it all.
“Trumpeter swans mate for life,” noted Rissler. The cygnets will migrate with their parents the first year; however, when the young swans are about a year old, the parents will drive them away. They remain together with their siblings until about the age of two, when they will begin to seek their own mates and their own marsh in which to nest.
The goal of the DNR’s trumpeter swan program was to have 40 nesting pairs throughout the state of Iowa. According to one DNR report, more than
500 trumpeter swans have been released in Iowa between 1994 and 2001. The swans are usually banded, but on-going monitoring is minimal.
“We will continue to check on them regularly, to make sure they are still there and healthy, but we are not going to step in and do anything as far as providing them food or anything, unless we see a problem,” said Rissler. “Once they leave the pond and migrate, it’s all up in the air.”
“There is no GPS tracking on the banding device, so the only way we would know if they are the same swans would be to get close enough to see the band with a pair of binoculars,” Rissler added.
And within binocular sight is about as close as anyone should be getting. It is illegal to hunt swans in Iowa.
“Swans today are kind of like the bald eagles in Iowa,” Rissler said. “They were previously endangered, so it’s going to take some time and cooperation with the public in not trying to hunt them or disturb them. If we are lucky, we’ll have as good a results as we’ve had with repopulating bald eagles.”
From now until about September, lucky passers-by may get a glimpse of the majestic white couple gliding elegantly among the reeds. Those not among the lucky should probably just bide their time– if all goes well, they should be back next year.