Winter in St. Croix River country is when the beautiful, massive and snow-white Trumpeter swans make their presence known. The elegant waterfowl somehow seem right at home drifting on pockets of open water amid the snow and ice.
Last February, I was driving down winding gravel roads in Wisconsin when I stopped at a small spring-fed pond. Because of the spring water bubbling up, the water was still open even in the depths of winter. There were several swans on the pond, and they honked and hooted at my presence, sounding remarkably like a human trumpeter playing some improvisational jazz.
The swans particularly like the St. Croix River in Hudson, Wis. near where the Willow River meets the St. Croix. Several hundred of the birds are known to gather there.
After some investigation, I learned they were wintering on the Willow River and the St. Croix River at Hudson. What a sight it was. On one cold morning, I counted almost 150 swans on the north end of Hudson River Park along with a few geese and ducks. Sometimes it pays to follow the leader. If I had not, I would have missed the sight. Apparently, they have been wintering there for years and I had not noticed them.
Trumpeter swans are huge birds. They are the heaviest of the large birds in the area. Like the geese, they mate for life. While we were watching the swans, they would fly off only to head back in a short time later. It was a magnificent sight. This morning, the temperature was 8 degrees. Many of the swans were sleeping on the ice while the rest we splashing in the cold water.
Unfortunately, all is not well in swan world. Lead poisoning plagues the birds, the result of lead sinkers used for fishing and which the birds ingest as they eat.
Two swans have already died of lead poisoning in Hudson this year, according to local swan steward Barry Wallace, as reported in the Hudson Star-Observer:
“We have had 100 swans die here of lead poisoning in the time I have been monitoring them,” said Wallace. “Already this year 12 have died in Burnett County, near the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area and eight in New Richmond’s Lundy’s Pond. That was a real hot spot this year.”
“Lead was banned from being used in bird shot in 1991,” said Wallace. “There is nothing we can do about the shot that is already in the area waters but we can do something about the lead sinkers. Most people don’t understand the damage it does.”
“I have been a hunter and fisherman all my life so I know I have contributed to the problem,” said Wallace. “Sportsman always help with conservation and they need to help with this as well.”
“Lead is so toxic we have taken it out of everything else including paint and gasoline,” said Wallace. “The tackle manufacturers have come around. They are making sinkers out of tin, tungsten and bismuth. The difference in cost is very minimal. It is really a matter of education.”
After all these years, Wallace is painfully aware of the symptoms of lead poisoning. First the bird separates itself from the rest of the group staying on the ice near the water’s edge. It’s neurological effects include head shaking and side to side movement of its head and neck, green droppings and gasping for air upon exertion. Finally the bird maybe alive but frozen in the ice having lost the ability to fluff its feathers for insulation.
Recent video of swans on the St. Croix:
Last summer, St. Croix 360 published Gary Noren’s photos of banding young trumpeter swans near New Richmond, Wis. See the photos…