BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – The population of Lee County’s trumpeter swan is low compared to other areas of the state such as Fort Dodge, Des Moines, and Atlantic, but the dedicated marsh just west of Heron Bend grew by two on Wednesday.
Lee County Conservation Wildlife Manager Rick Tebbs released two flightless swans to the aerated marsh on Wednesday afternoon. The swans were given to Lee County by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The females were injured and flightless, but they can now nest with males and hatch cygnets. The cygnets in turn become wild swans and are free to migrate and nest in the wild.
The move is part of an ongoing reintroduction of swans to the area. The birds are no longer on a watch list, but about 30 years ago, the population of trumpeters was down to 60 in the Yellowstone area, Tebbs said.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources had been keeping an eye out for injured swans after Tebbs told them one of the females in the Lee County Marsh had died due to injury from a predator.
“Something had gotten ahold of her and damaged her leg and we lost her. I called and told them about it and they said they would keep an eye out for any birds,” Tebbs said.
He got a call from Dave Hoffman, the DNR biologist who oversees the trumpeter program for Iowa, a couple of weeks ago. Hoffman had received a report of two female birds that were spotted injured.
Tebbs was going to a Wildlife Society meeting near Rathbun this week and Hoffman brought the birds to the meeting. Tebbs brought them to Lee County on Wednesday afternoon for release.
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“We’re trying to be a part of bringing back the whole Midwest nesting population. We’ve probably had close to 50 young from those that are put here. These are injured birds and we use them as breeding pairs and then the young become free flyers,” Tebbs said.
He said there are currently anywhere from 10 to 16 swans that are frequently counted in the area. Some migrate and feed outside the marsh, but use it as central open waters. Some will go out around the river at times, but stay close to the marsh.
The nesting done at the marsh bears the cygnets, or young swans from eggs, and then those will migrate when they become old enough to leave the marsh.
“They won’t breed for three or four years while they’re juveniles, but then they bond when they are four or so and they nest together. If something happens to one they will usually find another mate,” Tebbs said.
There is no tracking of the birds and the flightless ones will stay where they are. He said the motivation is just to get more birds in the wild. Some birds are tagged and Lee County Conservation will report when they see birds with collars to let federal naturalists know where the birds are migrating to.
“We’ve found some with collars that are from Wisconsin down here. We call to let them know so we can keep track of where migration is, but we don’t actively tag and track them,” he said.
The county keeps the marsh open during the winter with aerators that generate motion in the water to prevent freezing. Only about half of the marsh is kept open for fresh water, the other half is ice covered right now and has plenty of goose population there.
“We have to keep the water open so they have water to drink. Again, these swans can’t fly south because of their injuries so we keep this wetland habitat for open for them,” he said.
The swans will typically nest on top of muskrat houses and those houses stay at water level in the marsh. If the swans try to nest on the river it becomes challenging because the water levels rise and fall regularly and can wipe out the nests.
Populations dwindled in the 60s because people would hunt the swans for feathers and meat. Tebbs said feathers were used for powder balls that women would use to powder their bodies. The birds also have a lot of meat on them, so they were heavily hunted.
Some of the birds were killed in powerline contact, while natural predators also reduced the number of the birds.
He said the birds were on a targeted list due to the reduced numbers of locations the swans were being reported in, but the reintroduction in Midwestern states has the populations in the thousands now in Iowa alone.
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, in 2010 there were 193 swans reported in Iowa. In 2016, that number had increased to more than 1,800.
Trumpeter swans weigh up to 30 lbs and have a wingspan of more than seven feet. They get their name from their call.
“That call is kind of like a call to wetland’s preservation. This is why we do this,” Tebbs said.