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‘Our swan’ on return flight

January 3, 2019

La PORTE – There is a large and beautiful swan that is native to Indiana, but it’s not the mute swans which have become almost commonplace in some areas.

It is the trumpeter swan, which went virtually extinct because of unregulated hunting in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The birds are making a comeback, however, and have even been spotted recently on the La Porte lakes.

“The trumpeter swan is endangered,” Indiana Department of Natural Resources Urban Biologist Jessica Merkling said. “They were native to Indiana, but are struggling in Indiana and many other states. They are starting to come back, but the mute swans are getting in the way.”

She said the more aggressive mute swans “compete for nesting territory”; and because they nest a week or two before the trumpeters, they tend to stake out the best nesting areas, then aggressively defend them, leaving the trumpeters with nowhere to nest.

“They also compete for food,” Merkling said. “The mute swan eats up to 8 pounds of vegetation a day. And they like to eat tubers and aquatic plants, and they tend to dig these up, resulting in damage to other native plants that are food for other wildlife. They end up digging up a lot more than just what they eat, killing those other plants.”

The trumpeter swan can be distinguished from the mutes by its black bill – mutes have orange beaks. And while the mute swan usually swims with its neck in an S-curve shape, the trumpeter keeps its neck straight up.

The trumpeter is also a larger bird, actually the largest waterfowl native to North America, weighing in at between 21-35 pounds. The wing span that can reach more than 8 feet and the body length, from bill tip to tail feathers, is nearly 6 feet. They make a sound that is akin to the brass section of an orchestra, thus their name,

Several photographs have appeared on Facebook recently showing trumpeter swans and mute swans swimming together in La Porte.

Chad Addie, whose wife Nancy Addie posts numerous photos of local wildlife on social media, said they were surprised to see the two breeds swimming together after hearing all the talk about the mute swans harassing and even killing the trumpeters.

WIldlife officials say that, like many bird species, the birds co-exist peacefully at some times of the year, especially during migrations. But when nesting season approaches in the spring, that will end as birds compete for nesting spots and food.

“In recent years I have noticed a marked increase in the mutes’ tolerance of other species in some cases,” said Jay Anglin, local hunter and wildlife biologist. “In particular, Canada geese seem to get along with them better and they can be found nesting much closer to mutes than in the past.

“This is ironic as mutes were originally introduced on a large scale to small ponds to mitigate goose issues on lawns and docks. ... Humans have a tendency to try and outthink mother nature but it rarely works. So, now you have the geese overpopulated and underhunted on lakes surrounded by fancy homes; and swans eating the place out of house and home while terrorizing the local duck and marsh bird population.”

“Native tundra and trumpeter swans remain protected, but are rare in Indiana,” said Marty Benson of the DNR.

While Indiana has not tried to reintroduce trumpeters, Michigan has had success doing so. The first birds were brought to Michigan from Alaska in 1986 and the population had grown to over 750 birds by 2015, according to the Michigan DNR.

The trumpeter effort was aided by aggressive removal of mute swans, a process which began in the 1960s. An estimated 7,000 of the mute swans have been culled over the last seven years in Michigan.

Indiana DNR officials said the trumpeters recently seen in Indiana, including La Porte, are likely Michigan-bred, including a nesting pair spotted in Steuben County in 2017.

Before then, sightings of trumpeter families in Indiana had been limited to winter. But with swans successfully reintroduced in not only Michigan, but Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, the natural range expansion back into Indiana was expected, according to Adam Phelps, waterfowl biologist with the DNR.

“It’s a great success story that we have habitat that trumpeter swans need to breed,” Phelps said. “With any luck, this pair will return.”

Trumpeter swans tend to return to their territories each year, and females tend to return to the site where they were hatched.

Trumpeters lay an average of four or five eggs. The existence of only one cygnet may indicate predators ate the other eggs or cygnets. “It may also be that this female only successfully hatched one egg,” Phelps said.

Anglin has noticed the trumpeters stopping by the La Porte lakes during their migration.

“I was able to photograph a native trumpeter swan in La Porte County last year,” he said.

He wishes there were more, but said first the mute swans have to go.

“This is my biggest gripe about the mute swans. When I was a biology student in Michigan, about the only place wild trumpeters existed was Yellowstone Park. Now they winter here. I’ve seen as many as five at the same time east of La Porte.

“They are incredible birds. But territorial mutes harass them. This is our swan,” Anglin said, “not the bulbous-faced mutes.”

(Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series. Next, how a simple social media post about swans turned into a firestorm of criticism, name-calling and even threats.)

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