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Voyageur's Best Features of 2004

Trumpeter swans

A case of mistaken identity
The shooter of a trumpeter swan claims it was...
by Cynthia Brekke  | October 12, 2004

Most of us are lucky if we ever see a trumpet-er swan in the wild, let alone in our own back yard. For residents south of Tamarack, the sightings were a common occurence throughout summer, as a pair of swans called the waters of Nelson Lake home. The peaceful area provided perfect habitat for them and, soon after, their offspring.

Three species of swans reside in North America: the native trumpeter and tundra (formerly known as the whistling swan), and the non-native mute. Within these species there are mixed migratory and non-migratory groups across the Great Basin region of Alberta, and into the United States to include Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Trumpeters were nearly hunted to extinction and virtually disappeared from Minnesota in the 1880’s. Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 gave protection to trumpeter swans, and their numbers slowly began to rise. In 1932, it was estimated that fewer than 70 of these magnificent birds existed world-wide.

In Minnesota, the effort of restoring the trumpeters’ numbers began around the late 1960s, with the release of 40 swans by Hennepin Parks (Three Rivers Park District). Then, in 1982, the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program accelerated the process and successfully released over 300 trumpeters. Minnesota’s flock of trumpeter swans now stands at over 1,500 adult swans and approximately 400 young, but it has taken nearly 40 years to get them to that number.

Earlier this spring, a pair of trumpeter swans graced Nelson Lake with their presence and decided to take up residence there. They built their nest, which typically takes about two weeks to complete and reaches a diameter of six to 12 feet, with an average height of 18 inches. Since trumpeters mate for life, the same nest site may be used for several years. The male, called a ‘cob’, gathered the nesting material, bringing it to the female (or ‘pen’) for placement. The pen laid her clutch of eggs and, about 35 days later, the four cygnets hatched.

Trumpeter swans grow rapidly and by eight to ten weeks the young reached half their adult size, fully feathered with their gray juvenile plumage (they turn white their second winter). By mid-September, the adults began teaching their young the techniques required for migration. Some swans do not migrate while others do, for limited distances. Each family unit migrates together (two adults and two to six cygnets). In flight, they don’t use the classic ‘V’ formation like ducks and geese.

At 9:30 a.m. on duck opener (Sat., Sept. 25), touch-and-go flights were the order of the day for the cygnets. But the lessons ended abrubtly when the peaceful calm of the morning was shattered by the explosion of a shotgun.

Steve Frauenshuh, a science teacher at McGregor High School and area resident, was one of the first to respond at Nelson Lake that morning. He and his wife, Cheryl, had watched the swans all summer and taken pictures of them. He was outside, working around the yard at the Teddy Johnson place (Steve’s old residence) and, while he didn’t see who shot, he saw the adult swan drop from the sky.

“I was pretty surprised,” Steve began, “because the swans had been swimming around out there all morning and hunters had been out there and I figured everybody must know that they were swans.”

When he saw the swan fall, it was obvious to Steve that someone had shot it. “I ran down the driveway and saw the swan floating in the water and somebody in a boat out there picking it up, and I thought, ‘nope, nope, nope... this isn’t going to happen.’ So, I drove over to where they were parked.”

Others in the immediate vacinity, Jeff and Jay Olson and Mike Peterson, also knew what had happened. The first boat into the landing was the Olson’s, but Steve had never met them before and was angry. “I was a little hot under the collar and asked them if they had shot the swan,” Steve continued. They weren’t the shooters, but had witnessed it, and they had come off the lake to get to their cell phone and call the TIP (Turn In Poachers) line. Mike Peterson was the next one in. “By the time the guys who had been involved in it got to shore, we had the game warden called and on his way, and my car was pulled up by their truck so there was no leaving,” Steve went on. “We made it clear that they were waiting for the game warden and they didn’t argue. I think they realized that was how it was going to be. That was that.” Steve added that the hunters weren’t obnoxious about it and were apologetic. They knew they were done hunting. “I was so mad I couldn’t even talk to them. I couldn’t believe it.”

Conservation Officer Mike Scott, from Brookston, arrived on the scene. The individual who pulled the trigger told the officer that he was sure that he shot a snow goose, not a trumpeter swan. “I found it hard to believe he didn’t know,” Scott said. “Trumpeter swans are 25 to 35 pounds and the size of me. A snow goose is the size of a mallard.”

Because trumpeter swans are considered threatened, those who shoot them face fines up to $3,000, possible loss of shotguns and hunting licenses, as well as restitution charges of $1,000 (used to fund programs that protect wildlife such as swans). Upon conviction, the shooter loses small game and waterfowl hunting privileges for three years. Scott charged the hunter with shooting a trumpeter swan and seized the hunter’s license and firearms in accordance with the new gross over-limit law.

When Officer Scott was finished conducting the business of the shooting, Steve approached him on the subject of what was going to happen with the swan. “He said they usually go through the paperwork, and this and that, and when it’s all settled they give it to somebody that wants it for mounting. I asked him how it would be to give it to McGregor School and he thought that was a good idea.”

Steve, and the other hunters who turned in the shooter, had refused the tip money – at first. However, they thought of a way to put the money to good use. “After we thought about it, we thought maybe we could get a little of that and put it toward mounting.” The DNR will now be donating $100 dollars of TIP money for that purpose.

What about the surviving cygnets? Swans are amazingly adaptable creatures. “Last year, there was a pair that nested on the pond south of Nelson Lake, over by Dave and Marcia Peterson’s,” Steve said. “They came back this year, and then this pair appeared on Nelson Lake so we had four adult swans. Dave was telling me that he thought something had happened to one of the adults over there; a predator must have gotten it because he found lots of feathers and evidence of some kind of struggle.” There weren’t any cygnets so the lone swan moved in with the neighbors. “That’s about the time we started seeing a third adult on Nelson Lake.” Steve’s hypothesis is that it was the pen that was shot and that the surviving adults have come together to adopt the cygnets. A DNR press release last week confirmed that the pen was shot.

A simple rule of hunting is to know what you’re shooting at. If you don’t know what it is, or don’t have a clean shot, don’t shoot. On Sat., Sept. 25, one hunter made that mistake and learned a costly lesson the hard way.

While the swan will never again grace the skies or the shores of Nelson Lake, it will be admired and viewed by generations of school children who will benefit educationally and, it is hoped, never mistake a swan for a snow goose.

This article first appeared in the October 12, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.