“Now, if you notice how the swan, putting its neck down into the deep water, brings up food for itself from below, then you will discover the wisdom of the Creator, in that He gave it a neck longer than its feet for this reason, that it might, as if lowering a sort of fishing line, procure the food hidden in the deep water.” – Saint Basil
The loving actions of trumpeter swan, the heroic efforts of a couple paddle-powered rescuers, and the medical care of a Minnesota wildlife hospital are calling attention to the trouble that lead fishing tackle and ammunition poses to the birds.
Trumpeter swans have become beloved sights around the St. Croix River during the past two decades. The biggest waterfowl in North America, they are also perhaps the most elegant.
They gather in the winter anywhere there is open water, and can be seen soaring over the river, highways, wetlands, farm fields, and just about anywhere. People love watching them glide on their seven-foot wings and swim in ice-cold waters, and listen to their soft honking, when a bevy sounds like a jazz band.
The fact that swans can be seen and heard at all in St. Croix River country is worthy of celebration. They were gone from Wisconsin for more than 100 years, and nearly extirpated from Minnesota at the same time, driven out by hunting and habitat loss. Starting in the mid-1980s, reintroduction efforts got underway in both states, with eggs collected in Alaska and carefully transported to the region, hatched, and released into the wild.
There are now thousands of pairs living in both states. In 2009, they were removed from Wisconsin’s endangered species list. It’s a major stewardship success story.
Saving a sick swan
A recent episode in Hudson shone a spotlight on the ongoing problem posed to the birds by lead poisoning. Even one piece of lead can kill a 26-pound bird, and the bottoms of the rivers and wetlands where they hang out in the winter are often carpeted with sinkers and shotgun pellets. The birds frequently ingest the toxic metal when they consume pebbles and sand to help aid their digestion.
Hudson is probably the most popular swan spotting site in the river valley. Where the Willow River, via Lake Mallalieu, pours into the St. Croix, 100 to 200 birds congregate for the winter. It’s easy to drive up and watch them from a walking trail on top of the bank.
On Valentine’s Day, a mother swan, surrounded by her four cygnets, pecked at the ice trapping another young bird in the ice. It was not thought to be her offspring, and it was thought to be dead. Eventually, it moved its head and then she freed it from the ice. A group of onlookers, including the executive director of the Minnesota-based Trumpeter Swan Society, Margaret Smith, witnessed the whole thing. The society is a nonprofit that was formed in 1968 and is today involved in issues affecting trumpeter swans across the North American continent.
Smith shared photos and the story:
Saved from death, the swan was still clearly sick. The saga of this cygnet had only begun.
That was Saturday. On Tuesday, a team of volunteer swan wranglers showed up with nets, warm clothes, and two kayaks. Slowly cornering the weak bird, they were able to grab it and deliver it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota.
The capture was captured on video by Art Juchno:
Andy Rathbun at the Pioneer Press reported on the event and the issue in a thoughtful article:
“Now what we’re here to do is be the human part of the rescue, so the mother swan’s work won’t be in vain,” she said.
As two kayakers began paddling up the mouth of the Willow River, the bird jumped up on the ice and away from the kayakers’ grasp. Wallace and Don Wicklund, of Grantsburg, Wis., approached from the other side with nets, and the bird eventually got back in the water, where it was caught by kayaker Noah Gausman after a short chase.
“All it takes is a real light touch and they stop right there in the water,” said Gausman, who lives in Hudson and has been helping rescue swans since he was a child.
His mother, Mary Wicklund, of Grantsburg, brought the bird up from the riverbank and said it felt “way too light.”
She said she didn’t like the bird’s chances for survival, but “at least we know it’s not suffering anymore — no matter what happens.”
At the wildlife hospital, x-rays revealed three pieces of lead in the swan’s system, two small ones and a big one. The bird was also infected with parasites and emaciated.
The next day, the hospital posted a cautiously hopeful update, saying that the swan had survived the first night, which was an important step. But the doctors will need to get it strong enough to survive a procedure to flush the pellets out.
'Achilles Heel'The whole episode might seem senseless, considering that fishing, hunting, and healthy birds can co-exist with the help of modern materials. There was probably plenty of lead put in the waters before we were aware of the threat, but we know better now – and are still using it. Lead remains what one researcher calls "the Achilles heel" of swan recovery. The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation sees swan deaths as not significant enough to warrant prohibiting the use of lead. Efforts to prohibit lead "are generally not based on sound science, but rather on the emotional assumption that isolated incidents of animals ingesting harmful levels of lead translates to impacts on entire populations," it states in a position paper. The problem, the organization says, is that if the government bans lead, it will cost manufacturers to retrofit their factories. Those costs would ultimately be passed down to consumers, and that might even mean fewer hunters, which would mean fewer dollars for wildlife agencies and outdoor businesses. The group's major funders include outdoor retailers and manufacturers of ammunition and fishing tackle – and wildlife groups including Ducks Unlimited. A leading swan scientist uses similar reasoning as the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation to explain why we ought to be concerned about lead: there is not enough known about the issue to determine if it's a major threat. “We are not aware of any scientific study that demonstrates that swan mortality due to lead poisoning has not caused a population level impact," says John Cornely, Ph.D., retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist and senior conservation advisor to The Trumpeter Swan Society. "Not every swan that dies of lead poisoning is found and analyzed. This means that the totals we know about comprise a minimum estimate. The total impact is greater than what is observed. Dead swans, as with other wildlife, can be scavenged fairly rapidly and not be discovered.”
Demonstrating the dangerThat call to "get the lead out" was recently echoed by a St. Croix Valley hunter and writer – to protect both humans and wildlife. Local outdoors writer Mike Reiter recently sent over an excerpt from a column he wrote two years ago. He shared the results of a demonstration held at the Willow River Gun Club of the differences between lead and copper shot. Shooting into water jugs and paraffin wax, they saw how the ammunition can be bad for the people who eat animals killed with it, as well as wildlife, and how copper performed just as well as lead:
"The comparison between the bullets was dramatic! Along with the lead bullet slugs retrieved intact and showing very good mushrooming, there were hundreds of small lead shards visible to the naked eye. The copper bullets also showed excellent mushrooming with each of the expansion petals intact indicating perfect expansion. No fragmentation was noted with the copper projectiles. The lead bullets produced the same bullet fragments in the wax cylinders and showed a “vapor cloud” that was extremely small lead particles imbedded in the wax. The copper bullet left nothing except the perfectly expanded round."Reiter points out that we have removed lead from paint, plumbing, gasoline, and other objects to protect lives – especially children – but meat harvested with lead can still contain the poison. He calls lead "the toxin that keeps on giving," because scavengers can eat animals that die of lead poisoning and ingest harmful doses themselves. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says, "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized." Reiter writes that the ammunition demonstration also showed how lead core bullets can contaminate food. "Photos of packaged venison showed lead contamination upon X-ray and whole animal scans detailed lead fragments some distance from the fatal shot’s entry site." Convinced of the problem, the group of hunters left the meeting and tried to buy copper core bullets at hunting stores in the area. They were not successful. "Many of the retailers admitted that none were in stock," he reported.