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Trumpeter Swans Show Increase in Recent Survey

February 16, 2006

Pair of swansTrumpeter swans appear to be on the rise in Michigan, according to a 2005 survey. In 2005, the Department of Natural Resources participated in a survey of the species, and counted 728 trumpeter swans around the state, including 188 cygnets. This represents an increase since a 2000 census of the birds in our state that showed about 400 total trumpeter swans in Michigan.

"We have made remarkable progress restoring this species in Michigan," said Todd Hogrefe, endangered species coordinator for the DNR. "With protection of enough wetland habitat, we could expect trumpeter swan numbers to increase even more."

Swan eggsTrumpeter swans, the world's largest waterfowl, were once very plentiful on the Michigan landscape. As early as 1701, explorers of the Great Lakes region were noting the abundance of swans among the rushes. However, with the settlement of the U.S., swan populations dwindled. Settlers clearing land and draining marshes, coupled with hunters taking swans for their fine down and quills, reduced swan numbers drastically in the U.S. By 1885, the trumpeter swan population had been eliminated from Michigan. By 1900, the species was actually considered extinct throughout its range. In the 1930s, two previously unknown populations were discovered in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. However, several decades would pass before trumpeter swans would be seen again in Michigan.

In the 1980s, Michigan began a swan reintroduction program as part of the North American Restoration Plan. Michigan committed to establishing three self-sustaining populations in Michigan of at least 200 swans by the year 2000. First, there were attempts to cross-foster trumpeter eggs with mute swans, another species of swan in Michigan. The project yielded a low success rate and was abandoned.

Swan CygnetsThe second phase involved rearing cygnets, or baby swans, for two years prior to releasing them into prime wetland habitat. Eggs were collected from zoos and incubated to hatching. The rearing project proved successful, and DNR biologists traveled to Alaska to collect eggs from wild populations to include in the rearing program.

After nearly 15 years, the program was claimed a success as the 2000 count of trumpeter swans exceeded 400 individual swans.

Trumpeter swans are unique among Michigan waterfowl. They normally do not breed until their fourth year. They also form strong pair bonds that can last for years.

Their nests can be huge, at times reaching five feet across, and they are usually built among aquatic plants like cattails. They will often use the tops of muskrat houses for a nest base.

After hatching, young trumpeters stay with the parents until the next spring when the pair begins nesting. Survival of young trumpeter swans is often high because of this extra parental attention.

Swans being releasedToday, along with the trumpeter, two other species of swans can be found in Michigan. The trumpeter is easily identified as it is the largest swan in Michigan and has an all-black bill. The other resident swan is the mute swan, which is a European import. The mute has an orange bill and a bulbous knot at the top of its bill. The third species, the tundra swan, passes through Michigan during migration. Shortly after the ice thaws, hundreds to sometimes thousands of tundra swans can be seen nesting in the Great Lakes marshes. Two of the best sites for this migration spectacle are the Saginaw Bay area and the Maple River Management Unit in south central Michigan, just north of Lansing.

The most likely place to see trumpeter swans in Michigan is Schoolcraft County in the central Upper Peninsula. Seney National Wildlife Refuge had a total of 230 birds with 30 pairs nesting in the area during the 2005 census. Seney, as well as a couple of other areas in Schoolcraft County, harbors about one-third of Michigan's trumpeter swan population.

One pair of trumpeters in southern Michigan is recognized as very successful. A pair nested on a pond in Eaton County from 1991 to 2001, fledging 43 cygnets and bringing at least 33 of those birds through their first year.

"The growing number of trumpeter swans in Michigan represents a good example of what endangered species programs can accomplish," said Hogrefe. "Considering the species was thought to be extinct 100 years ago, its restoration in the state is certainly a great conservation success story."

The DNR's work with trumpeter swans is supported by the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund. The fund, established in 1983, works to restore populations of threatened and endangered species in Michigan. Since its inception, the fund has raised more than $9.5 million to support critical nongame projects. Michigan citizens can support the fund by purchasing a "Conserve Wildlife Habitat" license plate from the Secretary of State's office. Also, contributions to the fund can be made through the state of Michigan eStore at www.michigan.gov/estore.

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