|Swans in the Swing of
A record 71 trumpeter swans—our continent's biggest birds, with wingspans wide as your sofa—spent this past winter at the secluded Burning Star No. 5 coal mine, a 6,000-acre gated, reclaimed former strip mine located near Hurst in southern Illinois, now teeming with wildlife, wetlands, and crops.
Biologists with SIUC's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory are doing a first-of-its-kind study on these birds in hopes of boosting their survival.
On a blustery day in January, they took visitors for a rare glimpse at the reclusive swans. Their truck bounced over gravel roads snaking deep within the Consolidated Coal Co. property, with its lakes and rolling landscape. After rounding a bend, they braked a quarter mile from a bright green swath of winter wheat. In the distance, seven trumpeter swans, legs folded beneath snowy white bodies, were hunkered down for an afternoon siesta. A separate trio foraged off to one side.
"They're a beautiful bird in that they were extirpated by people and now they're being brought back by people," says Faye Babineau, a master's student in zoology who is guiding observations and data collection on the birds.
"I'd like to do it responsibly. We have an opportunity to help form intelligent, science-based management plans that will actually aid the species," adds the 25-year-old Babineau, who fell in love with waterfowl during an earlier bird-banding trip to her native Canada's James Bay.
She says that in pre-settlement times, 100,000 trumpeter swans graced North America's lakes and skies. By the 1930s, however, the species had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Hat makers coveted swan plumes and quills, and Europe's fashionistas powdered their noses with puffs made from swan skins.
Thanks to captive breeding and reintroduction efforts begun out West, the number of trumpeter swans is on the rise. The Pacific Coast population is the largest, with flocks stretching into Canada and Alaska that total an estimated 17,000 birds. In the 1980s, reintroduction efforts brought swans to the Midwest, where they now number around 2,400.
Yet trumpeter swans, which average about 20 to 30 pounds apiece and stand four feet tall, face a number of pressures.
Initially, they lack a migratory tradition, which must be passed from one generation to the next. If well-meaning folks up north feed them, they grow reluctant to leave summer breeding sites—and if the swans do take wing, they often discover that developers have eaten up preferred winter-feeding grounds.
That's why SIUC's wildlife professionals are working to get a handle on the swans' favorite spaces. Wildlife Lab director Alan Woolf is overseeing this research, which is fueled by more than $100,000 from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, using funds generated by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.
SIUC and Pittsburgh-based Consolidated Coal Co. provide additional support. Also lending a hand are state biologists in Wisconsin, where the swans breed in spring and raise their broods over summer.
"We hope to identify key factors for trumpeter swans during winter," says Babineau. "We're starting by observing the birds and getting to know their requirements and needs. No one else has studied this population's winter habitat needs.
"There have been studies out West, but there's such different habitat and weather conditions there. You can't really base a management plan [for Midwest swans] on data collected there."
Collars on more than half the birds, including lightweight radio transmitters on eight, help her and field assistant Jennifer Triplett home in on the swans' locations and track individuals' behaviors. "I can already tell that so far they've selected winter wheat above all else," Babineau says, nodding toward swans filling up on the crop.
She and Triplett are also studying flock movements, preferred habitats, courting activities, predation, and so forth. But above all, says Babineau, "the swans chose the mine for some reason and I want to look at the land use composition here to see if it exists anywhere else in southern Illinois. Winter habitat is disappearing quite rapidly and states need to come up with some management plans for these swans to provide habitat for the future."
Seven or eight swans first flocked to the reclaimed strip mine in the mid-1990s. They've returned every winter since (swans are loyal to sites where they've been successful). Now in tow are lifelong mates, offspring, and a few stragglers who joined along the way.
"It's exciting for them to initiate a migration tradition," says Babineau. "Hopefully it will continue and we'll have a healthy, self-sustaining population."
Scientific fieldwork on the swans will
continue each winter through December 2003.
—Paula Davenport, Media & Communication Resources