The Big Flap

An embattled biologist has dedicated years to teaching trumpeter swans, the earth's largest waterfowl, the migration route he believes they once took to the Atlantic Coast. Still, he has yet to convince his critics, who feel that money and time could be better spent on worthier projects.

By Ted Kerasote


In the rolling Virginia countryside, an hour's drive west of the nation's capital, William J. Sladen threw a handful of corn into the late by his house and called, "Hey, swans, where are you?" Sladen, the 84-year-old director of environmental studies for the Swan Research Program at the Airlie Center, an environmental and conference facility in Warrenton, Virginia, once did groundbreaking work on Adélie penguins in the Antarctic, discovering, for example, that parents feed only their own chicks. He later helped map the migration route of tundra swans from Alaska to Chesapeake Bay. Most recently he initiated a project to teach trumpeter swans to follow one of their historical migration routes to the East Coast, using ultralight aircraft to guide them on their way.

This day Sladen was dressed in his usual birding clothes—rubber Wellingtons and a thickly woven fisherman's sweater—and his blue eyes were bright as he scanned the lake, where Canada geese, black ducks, ring-necked ducks, mallards, and tundra swans paddled. “Ah,” he said in a British accent undiminished by half a century in North America, “here they are.”

Down the shore swam two enormous, regally white trumpeter swans. Leaner than their Eurasian relation the mute swan, and larger than their North American cousin the tundra swan, trumpeters are the earth's largest waterfowl; they can reach 30 pounds, with wingspans of up to 8 feet. Few avian sights are more riveting than a half-dozen trumpeter swans emerging from the dawn mists, wings beating in stately time as their two-tone calls, so reminiscent of a brass instrument, resound across the water:
hrr-onk, hrr-onk!

These two captive trumpeters, however, had their wings clipped long ago—swans can live into their twenties—and today they waddled onto the grassy berm as Sladen coaxed the female along: “Come on, Yo-Yo, come on.” She was followed by a male named Des, his wings outstretched, his mouth open in a hiss. “Here's where we need to be a little careful,” Sladen cautioned, “or else they could dash across the lawn and beat us up.”

He wasn't exaggerating. Captive trumpeters can give humans nasty bruises by pummeling them with the wrists of their wings, and signs posted by Airlie's lakes warn that “Swans may be unfriendly. Please walk away slowly. Don't turn your back.”

Yo-Yo bobbed her head at Sladen as she came closer. Now eight years old, she's famous for having participated in Sladen's first swan-migration project, a 1997 hop from Airlie to Maryland's Eastern Shore, across Chesapeake Bay, following an ultralight aircraft on which she had been imprinted. This wasn't the first time waterfowl were taught migrational skills this way. The technique was demonstrated most spectacularly with Canada geese, which were taught to migrate from Ontario to Airlie by a Canadian named Bill Lishman—an event that inspired the 1996 Hollywood film Fly Away Home. Today ultralights are being used to teach young whooping cranes to fly from Wisconsin to Florida. So far four “classes” have returned to Wisconsin, and three groups have now repeated both legs of the historical migration.

In 1998 and 1999 Sladen attempted two other trumpeter swan–migration experiments, but snow interfered with the trip from upstate New York to Chesapeake Bay, and the swans, having flown only part of the course, could not retrace it on their own. Sladen saw no point in reapplying for a research permit after these experiments, since the Atlantic Flyway Council, a group whose members represent American and Canadian wildlife management agencies, wasn't ready to approve a management plan for trumpeter restoration in the East. The council's reasoning was straightforward: “A trumpeter swan was shot during North Carolina's tundra swan hunt two years ago,” Sladen explained, “and the council became concerned that the public might rise up against the ongoing, legal sport tundra swan hunt in the East.”

That hunt brings in significant revenues to both North Carolina and Virginia, but concerns about the accidental killing of trumpeter swans by waterfowl hunters is only one reason projects to restore the species to the East have been stopped. Since 1962 Maryland's nonnative feral mute swan population has grown to 4,000 from a handful of escapees and released captives. An additional 10,000 feral mute swans, all descended from escapees and birds set free by their owners, now thrive across the Northeast. Each attempt by state wildlife agencies to control the species has been halted by legal challenges, and until the mute swan issue is resolved, the states along the Atlantic Flyway don't want to add another big, territorially aggressive waterfowl to the region—especially without assurances that the birds will actually go north to nest. To make matters more complicated, some prominent experts believe the trumpeter swan never nested in the East and that any effort to naturalize it to the Atlantic seaboard by people like Sladen, altruistic though they may be, is essentially throwing conservation dollars away, especially in a time when other species depend on reduced wetland habitats that trumpeters would occupy.

Such notions send Sladen into a dignified pique. “They're not competing with the ducks!” he exclaimed. “The swans reach deep down into the aquatic vegetation and bring the stuff up. You can see it for yourself.” He pointed to the lake, where dozens of ducks and geese fed around the now dipping swans. “They all used to live in harmony.”

Few avian sights are more riveting than a half-dozen trumpeter swans emerging from the dawn mists, wings beating in stately time.

That trumpeter swans and other waterfowl once lived together on the East Coast—at least for part of the year—is unequivocal. John Lawson, an early surveyor of North Carolina, notes in his 1709 account, A New Voyage to Carolina, that the region had two species of swans, including “[T]he one we call Trompeters; because of a sort of trompeting Noise they make. These are the largest sort we have, which come in great Flocks in the Winter, and stay, commonly, in the fresh Rivers till February, that the Spring comes on, when they go to the Lakes to breed.”

In the late 1700s another naturalist, the minister Jeremy Belknap, traveled through New Hampshire, and in his history of the state he also describes the bird we know today as Cygnus buccinator: “It is certain that our swan is heard to make a sound resembling that of a trumpet, both when in the water and on the wing.”

With their bright-white plumage and slow running takeoff, trumpeters made easy targets. Everywhere settlers shot them for their meat and plume hunters for their feathers, which were used for a variety of frivolous and practical ends: ladies' powder puffs, adornments for hats, and writing instruments. John James Audubon himself used the primary feathers of trumpeter swans for his most detailed work, stating that “the quills, which I used in drawing the feet and claws of many small birds, were so hard, and yet so elastic, that the best steel-pen of the present day might have blushed, if it could, to be compared with them.”

It was no surprise, then, that trumpeters were quickly exterminated across the United States. By 1932, in the 3.1 million square miles of the Lower 48, only 69 trumpeter swans remained alive, in southeast Montana and northwest Wyoming, where they were protected by an accident of topography and history: The area was the last corner of the United States to be settled and the first to be protected, in 1872, as a national park—Yellowstone.

In 1935 Montana's Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect trumpeters. They were fed grain during the winter and translocated to Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon, the Midwest, and Ontario. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, aerial surveys revealed large, healthy populations of trumpeter swans in Alaska. Today there are about 24,000 trumpeters flying North America's skies: about 18,000 in Alaska, 3,100 in western Canada, 2,400 in the Midwest, and fewer than 500 in the U.S. Rockies.

Because a trumpeter swan had not been seen on the eastern seaboard since at least the mid-1800s, Sladen thought it appropriate that his migration experiments begin where the bird was first sighted by Europeans. Members of The Trumpeter Swan Society (founded in 1968 to advocate for the bird's welfare) have also campaigned for a restoration of trumpeters to the East, bolstering their argument with a paper published by Philip Rogers and Donald Hammer in a 1998 issue of the society's journal. The paper proposed that trumpeter swans weren't merely winter migrants to the East Coast, as traditional ornithological maps portrayed, but that they had bred from Chesapeake Bay to northern Florida. Ruth Shea, the society's current director, has supported Rogers and Hammer's contention, stating that trumpeters “were indigenous to eastern North America from at least the late Pleistocene.” She has gone on to make the case that “these magnificent and vulnerable birds inspire public support for wetland conservation that benefits a myriad of less conspicuous species.”

“Wetland species are so strapped these days, and wetlands are scarce compared to their ancestral conditions. I don't see releasing trumpeters in the East, and putting wetland species there at risk, as making much sense.

Other experts disagree. One is the eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman, an Audubon field editor and the editor of the Kaufman Focus Guides. “Wetland species are so strapped these days,” he told me, “and wetlands are scarce compared to their ancestral conditions. I don't see releasing trumpeters in the East, and putting wetland species there at risk, as making much sense. It's not as if the trumpeter swan needs an eastern population to be established for the species' survival.”

Bill Whan and Gerry Rising agree, and they've made critiquing trumpeter restoration to the East a personal crusade. Whan is the editor of The Ohio Cardinal, the state's ornithological journal, and Rising is the former editor of The Kingbird, New York State's birding journal. On their website
(www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/swans.html) they address the question of trumpeters having bred in the East in great detail by examining old maps and the accounts of explorers and ornithologists. Their conclusion is that trumpeters didn't breed farther east than the northwest corner of Indiana, and that trumpeters were “never numerous south of Canada.”

However, some of the written record suggests a different story—that trumpeters, in fact, may have been plentiful below the Canadian border. Adding to Lawson's and Belknap's previously mentioned accounts, Edward Howe Forbush's 1912 work, A History of the Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds of Massachusetts and Adjacent States, cites the reports of hunters who shot trumpeters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the 1800s. Then there are Lewis and Clark's journal entries, in which the explorers note seeing and hearing trumpeters on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Most notably, perhaps, John James Audubon wrote from New Orleans that trumpeters were “frequently exposed for sale in the market.”

Resolving whether trumpeters actually bred in the East or only wintered there seems less important than judging the merits of restoring their migration routes to their original winter range on the Atlantic Coast. Since no one disputes that these migrations occurred, I asked Bill Whan, “If we could restore trumpeter migrations to the East, should we?”

“I doubt we can artificially restore their migrations,” he replied, “and there's no hurry to try. Let's see if the truly wild populations of trumpeters in the West will establish a natural wintering presence in the much-reduced habitats of the Atlantic Coast—habitats, I might add, that are currently being stretched to support native rails, bitterns, and black terns.”

Others in the East side with Kaufman, Whan, and Rising, at least in the short term, although for different reasons. One of those is Dennis Luszcz, former chairman of the Atlantic Flyway Council's Snow Goose, Brant, and Swan Committee. The committee had been involved in drafting a trumpeter swan management plan for the region—one that was never completed. “We have no problem with the concept of trumpeter restoration,” he observed, “if we can work out certain problems.” He went on to say that he doesn't want to see the day when a tundra swan hunter would be prosecuted for accidentally shooting a trumpeter swan, with the incident leading to a lawsuit that would terminate tundra swan hunting. Eighty-five thousand tundra swans now winter in North Carolina alone, and the state, along with Virginia, has invested heavily in the bird for wildlife tourism as well as sport hunting. “You just don't risk throwing this away to introduce trumpeters,” Luszcz maintained.

He also pointed out that eastern states are reluctant to restore trumpeters while their management decisions are dictated by court rulings rather than science. A case in point is the 2001 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on mute swans, which declared that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects nonnative swans along with wild ones. This forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to write a draft environmental-impact statement, permitting states to control exotic mutes. The Fund for Animals then sued to stop control programs, and won. “This kind of court decision effectively ties our hands as wild-life managers,” said Luszcz.

In the meantime Maryland's Department of Natural Resources is funding a study that gauges the effects of mute swans on the subaquatic vegetation of Chesapeake Bay. Until recently Christine Sousa, a Cornell graduate student, ran the project. I followed her around one day as she tracked her 134 collared mute swans. The mutes had congregated in flocks of hundreds, scattered around the bay's inlets, sleeping on the shore ice and paddling just off it, their heads often underwater. I asked Sousa if the birds were eating the seagrass native waterfowl depend on. “I don't know what else they'd be doing with their heads down,” she said.

Some of these birds, she pointed out, were also fed corn by local landowners. I had recently interviewed one of them, Patrick Hornberger, a publisher who founded an organization called Save Maryland's Swans, which later joined with the Fund for Animals as a plaintiff in the suit against the USFWS. He had told me that “in developed areas it's highly possible that the diet of mute swans isn't underwater grasses but corn.”

When I mentioned this to Sousa, she noted that mute swans that appear to eat only corn must, in fact, also eat seagrass to get the amino acids they need to survive.

“It would be hard to convince these people,” she went on to say, “that they'll have the same sort of interaction with trumpeters. What the public really likes is feeding waterfowl and watching them nest and breed.”

But such a cozy relationship may no longer be the norm if someone like Bill Sladen can teach wild trumpeter swans to migrate to the East Coast, and if state wildlife agencies are guaranteed that trumpeters won't interfere with tundra swan hunting. One hurdle was recently cleared when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 2004, which excluded mute swans from the treaty's protection. If the amended treaty stands up to an expected legal challenge by mute swan advocates, Maryland will begin oiling the mutes' eggs in the spring of 2005 and resume lethal controls of adult birds in an attempt to bring the state's population back to its mid-1990s level of about 500 individuals. This may take a few years. At that point, eastern states may revisit the issue of trumpeter swan restoration.


That's a lot of ifs, but Sladen remains refreshingly optimistic about the challenges. “We're testing passive migration,” he told me when I saw him again, “suspending them under a dirigible and letting them watch their migration route while drinking martinis. Ha-ha-ha.”

Despite his laughter, Sladen's quite serious about the project, and he plans on running a pilot version with geese toward the end of 2005. Meanwhile, trumpeter swans may pay no attention to such studies nor to the lawsuits, their critics, and government committees. Long necks extended, black bills open to shout their two-tone hrr-onk, they continue to fly to the eastern seaboard from Ontario and from the Mississippi, trickling into wetlands that still exist, diminished though they may be, and finding ice-free conditions as they did for thousands upon thousands of years. Whether to give them a helping hand, turn a blind eye to their reoccupation of their historic winter range, or put up a “no entry” sign will be one of the more interesting wildlife-restoration decisions we've faced.

Ted Kerasote's latest book, Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age, won the 2004 National Outdoor Book Award for literature.



Unlike the trumpeter swan, the tundra swan withstood the hunting excesses of the 1800s; its numbers have increased dramatically during the past two decades, and five states allow hunting as a way to stabilize the population. The problem is that the two species are virtual mirror images, prompting fears that hunters might accidentally shoot trumpeters, a protected species, if they're restored to the Atlantic sea-board. David Allen Sibley writes that the trumpeter “is best distinguished from the tundra by its longer bill with straighter base (lacking sharp curve at gape.)”



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State of the Bird

Species: The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator ), our largest swan, is easily confused with its slightly smaller cousin the tundra swan. The trumpeter has a heavier bill and lacks the spot of yellow in front of the eye usually shown by the tundra swan.

Status: Near extinction from hunting by the early 1930s, the wild population is at 23,600, earning a yellow designation (of national conservation concern) on the Audubon WatchList.

Range/habitat: Pairs build nests in freshwater marshes and ponds, often on muskrat or beaver houses or small islands. The bird summers in forested regions of central and southern Alaska all the way to the Pacific coast of western Canada and south to Oregon; plus central Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Populations have been introduced farther east, primarily around the Great Lakes basin. The trumpeter winters along the coast from southeast Alaska to Washington State, and in southern parts of its breeding range.

Threats: The species faces few major threats, but its relatively low population is still a cause for concern.

Outlook: Recent large-scale reintroduction programs across its historical breeding range in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region have helped put the trumpeter on a more solid footing.

Learn more: To read Audubon's “State of the Birds” report or to consult the Audubon Watchlist, go to www.audubon.org, click on Birds & Science, and pull down to Bird Conservation. The Trumpeter Swan Society is located at www.trumpeterswansociety.org.