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Environment & Climate Change

The comeback story of Michigan’s native trumpeter swans

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Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
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Tens of thousands of trumpeter swans once flourished in the Great Lakes region. But widespread hunting brought the birds to the brink of extinction, and the species was wiped out in Michigan over 100 years ago. A decades-long effort spearheaded by the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary at Michigan State University has helped bring trumpeter swans back to the Great Lakes — and now, if you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of these protected birds in the wild.

The Kellogg Bird Sanctuary brought a few trumpeter eggs from Alaska in an attempt to restart the population in Michigan in the 1980s. The most recent count of trumpeters in the U.S. — conducted in 2015 — estimates there are more than 3000 of the majestic swans in Michigan today.

Trumpeter swans face a variety of threats in the wild, like wolves, coyotes, or foxes. But no one’s been a bigger threat to this species than humans.

“Trumpeter swans were very prized for their feathers,”says Sara DePew-Bäby, an avian caretaker at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. “Anything from hats for women to powder puffs in the early 1900s and late 1800s — we didn't have the synthetic powder puffs that we do now. So their down and their very fluffy feathers were really prized for that. And actually, John James Audubon, who is the namesake of the Audubon Society, he actually preferred trumpeter swan feathers for his quills. So, even in the Audubon Society, there's a history there of taking those swan feathers to use for other purposes.”

“By 1959, actually, there were only 69 trumpeter swans that were known in the United States, and by then, people realized this was a species in peril,” says DePew-Bäby.

The swans were added to a first draft of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. And while there is a healthy population in Alaska, many states — including Michigan — still list the trumpeter swan as a threatened species.

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Though trumpeter swans aren’t widely hunted now, humans remain the most prominent direct and indirect threat to the birds’ well-being, DePew-Bäby says. Misidentification during hunting continues to be a risk, as does habitat loss. Plus, humans have introduced a major danger to the trumpeters’ ecosystems and food sources: lead.

“[Trumpeter swans] eat a lot of aquatic vegetation,” she says. “If they're going into a new area, there might have been historic fishing or hunting in that area, and they can ingest those lead pellets, and even just a couple pellets in their system can be catastrophic for that bird.”

DePew-Bäby says it’s important to address threats to trumpeter swans’ survival so that the species can flourish again.

“I think that we're on a path where the trumpeter swans continue to increase, but those threats are hazardous enough where you do worry about the future of the species,” she says.

How to spot a trumpeter swan

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
A trumpeter swan with her cygnets.

If you’re wondering whether the swan you’ve spotted is the elusive trumpeter, take a look at its bill. The native trumpeter swan has a black bill, while the invasive mute swan — often thought of as a classic-looking swan — has an orange bill. You may also see a trumpeter swan with an orange or rusty colored neck and head, which occurs if the bird eats an iron-rich diet.

Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) are big birds. They’re North America’s heaviest flying bird, DePew-Bäby says, weighing in at more than 25 pounds. So, particularly during their nesting season — when they’re protecting their cygnets — it’s a good idea to respect their space.

“If you think of a Canada goose, but multiply that three times bigger, that's kind of their disposition during nesting,” she says. “But other times of the year, they're not a threat to really anyone, or other animals. They will have territorial disputes, of course, because everyone likes their own space. But here at the sanctuary, we can have up to 100 trumpeter swans in summer, and everyone gets along pretty well.”

You can get a sense of what trumpeter swans sound like here.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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