Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Swan Song

Nature Watch
April 1, 2009

By Susan Benson,CNHM Director of Education

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 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 swan 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, trumpeter swans were almost wiped out during the nineteenth century when they were hunted for their meat and feathers. By 1930, fewer than 100 Trumpeters remained in the United States, but a national effort to save the bird seems to have paid off. In 1989, trumpeter swans were reintroduced to Wisconsin and placed on the state endangered species list, and are now making a slow comeback.

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.

The trumpeter swan, by contrast, 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. Trumpeter swans form pair bonds that last their entire lives wherever they spend their winter, and usually arrive on their breeding grounds soon after the ice melt in early spring. Once a pair has spent at least two summers at the same nesting location, they form a strong attachment to that site. When we are fortunate to see them they can be a strong reminder of our own attachments to the north woods.
For anyone looking to observe this beautiful trumpeter swan, a short drive can bring successful results. They can be seen along Pacwawong, part of the Namekagon River wetlands along 63 between Seeley and Cable, or in the wetlands along Mosquito Brook Road. Bring along your binoculars for an exciting view!

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 13470 County Highway M or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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