November 30, 2007
By Susan Benson
Director of Education
Cable Natural History Museum
Winter has arrived, at least in the form of sustained cold temperatures. Many of us who live in the north enjoy the fact that we get four seasons, so bundle up and get outside if you can! Freezing temperatures tend to slow things down, but by no means do they bring wildlife activity to a stop. In fact, if you’ve always wanted to try birding, winter is a great time to start because there are fewer species around and they tend to congregate around feeders.
If you’re near a lake or river, you might also see birds congregating on open, ice-free water. Before everything freezes up, you might chance to see a swan, for example. Who can forget the classic tale of the ugly duckling, where a homely little chick grows into a beautiful white swan? That “duckling” in the story was no duck, of course, but was really a Mute Swan chick passing through its natural brownish phase before turning white.
The Mute Swan, commonly found along the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest, is the bird typically featured in artwork and folklore as a symbol of grace and beauty. However, many people consider this nonnative bird undesirable in North America because it harasses native waterfowl and can uproot large quantities of aquatic vegetation.
Mute Swans were brought to the United States from Eurasia in the 1800s as ornamental additions to estates, parks and zoos. Over the years, many were released or escaped captivity and, by the 1970s, a resident population had established itself in Wisconsin and has been growing ever since.
By contrast, native Trumpeter Swans were almost wiped out during the nineteenth century when they were hunted for their meat and feathers. Swan skins were sold in the fur trade to Europe where they were used to make ladies’ powder puffs and feathers were used to adorn fashionable hats. By 1900, it was widely believed that the species had become extinct. Fortunately, a small nonmigratory population of Trumpeters survived in remote mountain valleys of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In the 1930s, a national effort was organized to protect these birds and in the decades since to reestablish populations in other states.
In 1989, trumpeter swans were reintroduced to Wisconsin and placed on the state endangered species list. State natural resource agencies in Minnesota and Michigan had also initiated Trumpeter Swan recovery programs in the 1980s, and together, the three states are now establishing flocks that will help create a migratory and breeding population in the Midwest.
Both the Trumpeter and Mute Swans can be found in marshes, lakes and prairies, and both are about the same size, with a wingspan of up to eight feet and weight of up to 30 pounds.
How can you tell the difference? The Mute Swan is best identified by its orange bill and prominent black fleshy knob extending from the base of the bill to the forehead. Additionally, Mute Swans typically hold their necks in an S-curve with the bill pointed downward. Contrary to its name, this bird is not silent, but utters a variety of calls, including grunts and snorts. By contrast, the Trumpeter Swan has a broad, black bill and holds its neck erect and head upright. True to its name, the Trumpeter’s voice sounds like a horn.
Start a winter birding journal this year! Chickadees, juncos, and nuthatches should easily get you started. Build your birding skills and confidence, then try to identify and get familiar with 10 bird species this winter.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.