Your Christmas Swan

“We’re having something a little different this year for Thanksgiving.  Instead of a turkey, we’re having a swan.  You get more stuffing.”

–George Carlin

What a bird!  I love swans.  And I don’t mean for dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. 

A century ago, people did eat them and shoot them for feathers.  When viewed rationally, I suppose it’s just an oversized goose with a slightly longer neck.  Indeed, there would be a lot of meat on one.  The wing feathers might have looked nice in a hat, and a swandown sleeping bag would be at least as warm as a goosedown bag.  But still…

The other day I managed to get this shot of a cold swan.  And no, this has nothing to do with Cold Duck, the bargain brand of sparkling wine.  You’re looking at one of several trumpeter swans that overwinter in my neighborhood.  They hang out on certain stretches of river that stay open all winter, even when it’s below zero. 

(The night after I took this photo, the temperature dropped to -22 F.  No matter how much down you have on your chest, that’s cold.)

Sorry for the grainy spy photo; there wasn’t much cover, and this bird became nervous when I was still a couple hundred yards away.  And even if it would have allowed me to approach more closely, I’d have been crawling a long distance on very thin ice.

I’d hoped for a close-in shot of a white swan on black water, pinkly luminous in the late-afternoon sunset.  Visitors to my blog would have been very impressed.  Somehow, however, I only get opportunities like that when I’m not carrying a camera. 

I thought about making another trip or two; I can sometimes be persistent.  But then I decided it wasn’t worth making this bird, or some other swans, nervous enough to fly off to the next convenient open water.  That’s a couple miles away, even as the swan flies.  Better for these birds to burn no more calories than necessary.  More cold nights are coming, and spring is months away.

In the spring, pairs will disperse to secluded nesting sites in isolated marshes and small lakes.  For most of the summer, they’ll make themselves scarce. 

And then fall arrives…  This particular swan must have acquired its numbered yellow collar in early September; that could even be part of the reason it wouldn’t let me get closer.  Maybe it recognized me.

Since moving to this area, I’ve been fortunate enough to get in on a couple of September swan roundups.  This involves a spotter plane and a dozen or so volunteers in canoes and kayaks.  Sometimes the mix includes a small fishing boat with an outboard; other times the swans’ nesting site is in a marsh too shallow, weedy, or inaccessible for anything but canoes or kayaks.

If we can, we capture all the young swans the pair has raised this year—cygnets, they’re called.  We capture them one at a time, and then later release them simultaneously.  But first, biologists weigh the birds, band them, take a blood sample, and give them a numbered neck collar so they can later be identified from a distance.  Then, after we release the birds, it’s time to load up and head to the next nesting area.  Usually we hit about four different marshes in one long day.

I’ve had to miss the last couple roundups.  I hope I get to join in again next September.  By then the cygnets are nearly grown, but not yet able to fly well.  (In theory, at least.  A few of them can already fly just fine, thank you.)  At this point, they’re already at least half again as large as a Canada goose.

Swan roundups are one of the rare times I can put my canoe racing background to practical use.  It’s also a rare opportunity to help chase down, net, and wrestle with a member of an endangered species—and yet somehow not get in serious trouble with the law.  It’s all in the name of science; we’re doing our part to help trumpeters recover from the brink of extinction.  

By the way…  The best part of all is when we simultaneously release three or four cygnet siblings and watch them flap awkwardly across the surface of the water to rejoin their distraught parents.  And yes, nervous or agitated trumpeter swans do sound like someone blowing on a trumpet.  Someone, that is, who doesn’t know how to play the trumpet very well.

So there’s your Christmas swan story.  And with that…

Merry Christmas, and to all a good, warm night!

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.

2 thoughts on “Your Christmas Swan”

  1. Hi Al,
    While trumpeters are protected, you can legally hunt tundra swans (with permit) in North Dakota. Tundra swans are smaller than trumpeters but they are still giant birds. They also have a sandhill crane season. I couldn’t imagine hunting a bird that big, but they do it. One of my favorite lakes in Wisconsin is home to quite a few trumpeters. It’s pretty neat to watch those big birds fly over the lake. They almost look like 747s!

  2. As I suggested in the opening to my post, some of our prejudices about what to hunt and what not to hunt may not be totally rational. Still, I have to admit, for me it would feel kind of strange to hunt sandhill cranes.

    I have heard, though, that they’re very tasty. Hence the expression “ribeye from the sky.” And they are indeed big. I talked with one guy who described it as being “like a card table falling out of the sky.”

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