Trumpeter Swan Restoration


Prior to the settlement of Iowa, trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) nested throughout the state. However, wetland drainage and unregulated hunting of trumpeters soon brought their demise. Until 1998, the last wild nesting trumpeter swan in Iowa occurred in 1883 on the Twin Lakes Wildlife Area southwest of Belmond, Iowa in Hancock County. In 1998, three cygnets hatched from a wild nesting trumpeter pair in Dubuque County. This pair hatched 5 in 1999 and 5 again in 2000.

In 2000, a second pair nested on a Winnebago County Conservation Board wetland (Russ Tract at Thorpe Park) 7 miles west of Forest City. This pair had 5 eggs. Unfortunately none hatched. We did, however, add a 6th egg and it hatched providing this pair with a young cygnet to help bond the pair to the wetland nest site.

Trumpeter swans were first given nationwide protection in 1918 when the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the International Migratory Bird Treaty. A nationwide swan count in the early 1930’s showed that only 69 existed in the continental United States with all those occurring in Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana.

In 1993, a plan was developed to restore trumpeter swans back to the state. The goals were to: (1) establish 15 wild nesting pairs back to the state by the year 2003 and (2) use the swans to promote the many values of wetlands not only for wildlife habitat but for water quality and flood reduction.

Iowa swans are being obtained from zoos, private propagators, other state swan projects, and any other sources that might have swans available. Flightless breeder pairs are also being established at appropriate sites, the young of which will be allowed free flight. To date, 50 breeding pair partnership sites are established. All trumpeter swans released in Iowa are marked with plastic green and red neck collars and leg bands as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands. The plastic neck and leg bands are marked with alpha letter F, H, P, or J and numbers 00 through 99.

After three years of migration observations, most Iowa swans that migrate some distance are wintering in northeast and east central Kansas and northwest and west-central Missouri. One Iowa trumpeter swan did winter as far south as Oklahoma during the winter of 1998-99, and one swan wintered near Heber Springs, Arkansas in 1999-2000. If swans can find open water many of them will remain throughout the state of Iowa. Migration movements “out of that norm”, included 3 swans released at Union Slough NWR that migrated to and wintered in southeast Colorado near Ft Lyon. Two of these were observed at Monticello, Minnesota in the spring of 1997. The straight-line round trip mileage for these birds is over 1300 miles.

A review of swan sightings indicates that over the last 5 years most areas of state are now seeing swans at sometime during the year. This is another indication that the restoration effort, although slow, is moving forward. During 2000, 34 of the partnership pairs produced 118 young. Six additional nests failed to hatch and about 3 dozen of the 118 young have died of various mortality causes. Wishes for Wildlife Foundation is excited about what the future holds for trumpeter swan in the state.

Known mortality to date includes the following: 14 have died in powerline collisions, 21 were shot, 2 of apparent malnutrition, and 9 unknown causes. Several other mortalities have likely occurred from completely unknown causes as we have not had any observations of many unmarked swans. Mortality rates are somewhat higher than anticipated and will likely slow our trumpeter swan restoration efforts.

A major milestone was reached in 1998, 1999, and again in 2000, when the first and second free-flying trumpeters nested in Iowa since 1883. Four free flying females have bonded mated with 4 captive/pinioned males and have produced eggs. Besides these we apparently have several pairs of Iowa swans nesting in southern Minnesota (one near Mankato, Minnesota is touted being the Minnesota DNR’s southern most production) and at least one Iowa bird, a male, is part of a nesting pair on the north shore of Lake Ontario. We are hopeful that 2001 may add 3 or 4 additional free-flying nesting pairs of swans to the state.

Wishes for Wildlife strives for the continued success of this restoration and understands that it wholly depends upon the generosity and commitment of volunteers and concerned citizens that value the swans and their habitat. These involved and caring citizens range from school children to waterfowl hunters.