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Swans numbers in good shape

November 24, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

TRUMPETER SWANS (Cygnus buccinator) are the largest waterfowl. It is all white except for its black beak. It can weigh up to 32 pounds and fly very well on its powerful wings spanning 8 feet. They are much larger than any goose, sound different, and do not have black wing tips as the snow goose possess. Other swan species may look similar from a distance, but be careful. An occasional Tundra swan may appear in fall migrating flocks, as one did several years ago at Green Castle. It has a small dash of yellow on its beak just forward of its eye. We are not likely to see the Bewick's swan or the Whooper swan, the latter being primarily a Eurasian species.

Prior to the settlement of Iowa, trumpeter swans nested throughout the state. However, wetland drainage, and unregulated hunting of trumpeters soon brought about their demise. Until 1998, the last wild nesting trumpeter occurred in 1883 in Hancock County on what is now the Twin Lakes Wildlife Area southwest of Belmond. As the captive program geared up, 1998 had the successful hatch of three cygnets from a wild pair in Dubuque County. That same pair produced five in 1999 and again in 2000.

Trumpeter Swans were given national protected status as far back as 1918 when the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the International Migratory Bird Treaty. An important part of that treaty called for counts of all kinds of migratory birds during the next two decades, an early attempt to get a grip on remaining stocks of birds big and small. That is when 69 trumpeters were found and all of them were in the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana.

Article Photos

Trumpeter Swans at the Green Castle Recreation Area are part of a much larger wildlife management success story. Only 69 trumpeter swans were known to exist in the United States in the early 1930s. From that small stock, and by carefully working with captive pairs, a concerted effort nationally and by Iowa DNR officials, county conservation boards and private individuals began in 1993. The goal was to establish 15 wild breeding pairs by 2003. In addition, T swans were a natural symbol of the importance of wetland conservation for wildlife, water quality and flood reduction. In March of 2011, the program was pronounced a success. Today’s photo includes the sole surviving cygnet from this year’s hatch of three from Green Castle.

The stock for Iowa's reintroduction program came from zoos, private propagators and other states. Flightless breeding pairs were located at sites all over Iowa, Green Castle being just one of about 50 swan areas. When the young cygnets hatched and grew to adult size each fall, they were captured and in some cases relocated to other wildlife refuges sites in Arkansas. These free flying cygnets would become the basis for additional nesting success in Iowa. For instance, in 2000, 34 of the 50 rearing sites had a total of 118 cygnets hatch. Subsequent years were even better. In 2010, Iowa had 42 swan nests from free flying birds. Any remaining captive swans nest were adding new cygnets to the total. With these successes, Iowa has ended the state T swan program. Private holdings can and will continue to offer swan nesting sites ford any pinioned birds they may have as well as any new free flying swans that want to take up nesting chores.

Look for migrating Trumpeter Swans this fall at Sand Lake. As colder weather, snow and brisk northwest winds become the norm. migrating waterfowl of all species will drop into Sand Lake for a rest. There will be swans among them. Check them out. Enjoy the wildlife viewing opportunities our local lakes, ponds and river have to offer.


Fall is a perfect time to get ready any bird feeders one may have. Clean them up really good by washing with a mixture of vinegar and warm soapy water. Even a rinse in 10 percent bleach solution will help kill any loose or possibly moldy seeds at the bottom of a feeder. Fill with new seed and you are ready to go. Hints for best bird foods ... black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, nyger thistle, suet and peanuts. Remember that peanuts can attract squirrels so leave peanuts out of the mix to minimize the pesky instincts of squirrels. If you only feed birds in the late fall or winter, that's fine. We feed them to attract them near our windows for viewing. Otherwise the birds have ample opportunity to find food by themselves. The biggest attractant is water. Fit a water station with a heater to keep ice away, and open water all winter is a magnet for birds. And lastly one the hint of things to do with bird nest boxes, remove them now and inspect the box and its old nests. Clean them up for next year. If you find bees or wasps liked the bird house better than the birds, make a light coating from bar soap to the inside walls of the house before you reassemble it.


According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, these facts have emerged on bird numbers. It is estimated that 10 billion birds breed each year in North America. Fall populations may be in the order of 20 billion. That is a lot of feathered critters. And even radar scopes from weather watching stations can detect, if the operators interpret the timing of images on their screens each evening during migration, as bird leaving roosts to migrate at night. The greatest threat to birds and all wildlife continues to be loss and/or degradation of habitat due to development and disturbance.

It is estimated that 3 billion birds die each year. Here is how it breaks down. If one can imagine a pie graph to illustrate bird mortality, one-third is loss of habitat. Another 31.7 percent is collisions with buildings or windows. Domestic and feral cats make up 16.7 percent of the pie. Power lines will take 5.8 percent, vehicle strikes 2 percent, tall towers and wind farms about 1.7 percent. Pesticides and pollution account for 2.4 percent. Licensed and regulated hunting take only 1.3 percent, primarily game birds such as quail, pheasants, wild turkey, ducks and geese. Lead ingestion is a mere 0.7 percent. Other factors that are very difficult to quantify include contact with waste water pits, wind farms, urban lights, diseases, starvation or natural predation.

As for the Bald Eagle, any of its deaths, natural or otherwise, are more likely to be noticed just because it is such a big bird. Sparrows by contrast that die of any cause go unnoticed. Eagle mortality and the stories that accompany them have more to do with emotion than science. A key point missed in many discussions is that the issue of eagle losses are overstated by media and environmental groups. The truth is that eagle populations are soaring. Their recovery from dangerous levels of the past is another wildlife success story. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list precisely because its population monitoring systems have shown its great comeback and growth.

Eagle declines were not caused by hunters or target shooters. Part of the excise taxes they pay on traditional ammunition and sporting firearms goes into a wide variety of wildlife programs including enhancement of eagle habitat. But there is another log on the fire or truth detecting that needs to be put out with quenching truth and publicity. Social media, in part, is empowering emotional, irrational, unsubstantiated and irresponsible big mouths that get popularity and momentum from "going viral" before respectable and reputable information can tell the truth. Mark Twain said "Rumors run half way around the world before the truth get its shoes on." Even in Twain's day, facts took a back seat to rumors and misinformation.

Another case to illustrate fact vs fiction: The passenger pigeon is extinct. Yes, it was once hunted precisely because there were so many that flocks of these roosting birds could literally break tree branches because of their combined weight. There were so many in some flocks that the sky would darken even in mid day. The biology of the bird to only thrive in large flocks was another factor. But the biggest factor for its decline in early America was the loss of habitat by unregulated timber cutting combined with an ever increasing human population that was changing the landscape as westward expansion took place. Hunting seemed to be the easy scapegoat to use while overlooking the changes to the land going on all around. Such is the nature of the human species to speculate first and worry, if at all, about facts later.


Ask the Game Warden: John Steinbach noted that some fall hunting seasons will close soon. Wild Turkey can be taken through Nov. 30. The first segment of archery deer season closes also on Nov. 30. Shotgun season number one for deer begins Dec. 1. For safety reasons, Iowa game laws require that all firearms carried in a vehicle on a public road must be unloaded and fully secured in a case. Gun deer hunters must wear a solid blaze orange vest (or more) while deer hunting. And the only license for deer they may carry is their own. All these points and more are clearly spelled out in the Iowa 2012-13 hunting and trapping regulations booklet. Call Steinbach for details or questions before the hunt by calling him at 751-5246.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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