From none to some and now thousands in just a few decades, the comeback of the trumpeter swan in Minnesota has been a wildlife recovery success story for the ages.

But now that the big, graceful birds are back from the brink of extinction, what’s next?

Trumpeters are now breeding and nesting throughout most of the western Great Lakes region, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Manitoba, Ontario and Ohio. But beyond estimates of population size and some nesting locations, there’s surprisingly little information documented about their ecology.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are working with cohorts in other states and provinces trying to fill in many still-unknown blanks about trumpeter swan habitat, migrations and behavior. Some birds go south for winter, some stay in Minnesota, but researchers don't know how many.

Last summer, they kicked off a multi-year effort, nabbing 19 swans in Minnesota and Michigan and fitting them with solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitter collars that follow the bird’s every move and transmit information back to scientists over cellular phone networks every 15 minutes.

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This month, as the big birds lose their primary flight feathers and are unable to fly — this molting happens for a few days each summer — scientists hope to catch 75 more swans across Minnesota, Michigan and other neighboring states and provinces and let them go with GPS trackers.

The goal is to evaluate year-round swan movements, including where swans spend the winter, and the timing and duration of their migrations. Researchers also want to know whether and where trumpeter swans, like Canada geese, make molt migrations — a northward summer movement by young, nonbreeding birds to give the new season’s chicks room to grow.

“We’re looking for better information to make better management decisions now that this species has been reestablished,’’ said David Andersen, University of Minnesota scientist overseeing the effort, in a news conference Thursday, July 16. That could mean protecting wintering grounds for the big birds once those areas are confirmed.

Scientists also are eager to find out what the survival and death rates are for swans and what the leading causes of swan mortality are, such as lead poisoning, power lines and predators.

The data, including swan movements, is available online for anyone to watch, an effort to engage the public in swan conservation, at trumpeterswan.netlify.app/locations.

Researchers in Minnesota and other states and provinces will head into the field in coming days to trap trumpeter swans and fit them with GPS transmitting collars that will relay constant locations of the big birds as scientists work to learn more about their behaviors and migrations. Submitted photo.
Researchers in Minnesota and other states and provinces will head into the field in coming days to trap trumpeter swans and fit them with GPS transmitting collars that will relay constant locations of the big birds as scientists work to learn more about their behaviors and migrations. Submitted photo.

Nearly wiped out

The big swans once covered much of the continental U.S. but were hunted to near extinction throughout the 1700s and 1800s for their fashionable feathers and their tasty meat. Their feathers were used for quills, hats and powder puffs, and — with no hunting limits or seasons yet established — the big bird could feed a homesteader’s family for days.

Moreover, millions of acres of prime swan wetland habitat were drained for farming and development. By 1900, there were no swans left in Minnesota. By 1950, they were gone from all the continental U.S. except for a single lake in Montana. While once millions of swans graced the nation, only 69 birds remained.

But thanks to decades of efforts by wildlife biologists and swan supporters, the big birds are back. Minnesota got a few of those Montana birds in the 1960s to restart a population in the state. In the 1980s, Minnesota’s new Nongame Wildlife Fund — stocked with money from the Loon Line on tax returns — paid to relocate eggs from Alaska to hatch, raise and release in Minnesota.

Since the first Minnesota trumpeter swan releases in 1987, the state’s Nongame Wildlife Program has released more than 350 swans across the state. Those transplants thrived, and Minnesota had 2,000 swans by 2004. By 2015 the number topped 17,000. In 2020 the estimate is now over 30,000 trumpeter swans in Minnesota, nesting from the southwestern prairies to the boreal forests in the northeast.

"Our goal back in the 1980s was to have 350 (trumpeter) swans in Minnesota and obviously we've far surpassed that," said Lori Naumann, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program information officer.

Similar work to restore trumpeter swans in South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario has brought North America's interior population to over 63,000 birds.

“Minnesotans who donate to the Nongame Wildlife Income Tax Checkoff have also played a key role in providing funding for reestablishing trumpeter swans throughout the state,” Naumann said. “These donations are critical to protecting thousands of Minnesota wildlife species and making our program one of the most successful in the nation.”

About trumpeter swans

  • Are North America’s largest native waterfowl, nearly 6-feet long with a nearly 10-foot wingspan and weighing more than 25 pounds — almost twice as big as a tundra swan (another white swan that migrates through the Northland in spring and fall). Getting airborne requires a lumbering takeoff of up to 100 yards.
  • Form pair bonds when they are 3 or 4 years old. The pair stays together throughout the year. They usually mate for life, but some individuals do switch mates over their lifetimes.
  • Take an unusual approach to incubation: They warm the eggs by covering them with their webbed feet.
  • Scientific name, Cygnus buccinator, is from the Latin "cygnus" ("swan") and "buccinare" ("to trumpet").
  • Are awkward on the ground due to short legs set behind their center of gravity, but can walk more than a mile at a time.
  • Have lived to 26 years in the wild. One captive individual lived to be 32.

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology