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A magnificent bird

February 5, 2017
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

A doctor's appointment in Marshalltown on Friday saw me cruising past Sand Lake just to the east of that city about 8:30 AM. I always watch as I drive past to see how many Canada Geese are utilizing the area. In the past, I have not only been treated to large numbers of the geese but on occasion there are big flocks of various ducks and even groups of cormorants. But on this date, I did a double take. There was a very large number of Trumpeter Swans resting on the soft and hard water there right now.

I have seen swans before, but never so many here in central Iowa. But I cannot recall a time where I have seen so many of these birds all together. To say there were 100 would not be exaggerating. In college and later working at Red Rock, I received training at estimating numbers of animals for wildlife research. However, I could not put that knowledge to work as sadly I was cutting it too close for that Dr. appointment.

The open water has attracted several other species of waterfowl, including some that are quite uncommon at least for mid-winter. Upon returning home, I found reports of large numbers of these swans over at Ada Hayden Park in Ames and upwards of as many as 200 swans were wintering on Beemer's Pond near Webster City at the junction of Hwy 17 and Hwy 20.

These magnificent snow white birds are easily twice the size of the giant Canada geese that I was expecting to be seeing. These swans have wingspans up to eight feet. They also are among the world's heaviest flying birds reaching weights of over 30 pounds. To get that much bird into the air takes some distance. They literally run across the water to reach flying speed, and require longer open approaches when they glide in to land at these watery airports. Like the wintering geese, these birds are living on corn from area fields.

And to think, they were teetering on the edge of extinction before 1950. Just going by the numbers of birds reported at the areas I listed here, there are more trumpeter swans in central Iowa right now than existed in the United States when I was born in 1956. According to Jack Musgrove's 1943 book, Waterfowl In Iowa, there were only 69 birds remaining in the lower 48 states as residents of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. Estimates were that including swans in northwest Canada and Alaska, there were probably no more than 1500!

The return of wild trumpeter swans to Iowa and the nation is one of modern conservation's major success stories. The birds once nested across much of Canada and the northern US. Like so many other iconic North American wildlife species, habitat loss and unregulated hunting in the 1800s nearly wiped them out. Jim Dinsmore's book, A Country S Full Of Game, records the last wild nesting in Iowa taking place in 1883.

So what happened? Careful harvesting of eggs from wild pairs and captive breeding programs in several states began in the 1980s and 1990s. In Iowa it was 1993. The Iowa DNR's reintroduction program was phased out in 2011 due to the successful establishment of wild nesting pairs on wetlands scattered around the state.

On our way home Sunday afternoon, I swung by the lake to show the swans to my wife. Sadly there were none. Out in the fields feeding already? Perhaps. Back over to Ames? They quite possibly could be the same birds. A trip to Ames is no big deal for us and even less of a problem for swans. I can tell you that my next several trips to Marshalltown will have me driving by way of Sand Lake to see if they are still around.



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