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Inside the Outdoors: Inside the Outdoors: ‘Fair Game’ is a moving target

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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One recent morning, during a very-much-welcomed spell of warm weather, I chose a deck chair instead of sitting before the fireplace for morning coffee. In the quiet of first light, I heard a faint chorus of honking coming from beyond the treetops. The first glimpse was only shapeless motion seen through a latticework of pine and oak branches, until the birds took shape as they cleared the trees and set their wings for the glide down to the still-gray surface of the lake.

My expectation was set for geese, given how numerous they are here at this time of year, when they move between the security of the lake and feeding grounds in nearby fields. I had heard only a few syllables of the birds’ conversation before they emerged from the tree line, but should have recognized the few vocal clues as swan talk, not geese.

Unlike Canada geese, which are more common here—and sometimes encounter camouflaged hunters and goose decoys when they travel to nearby fields to feed—the nearly pure white and easily-identified swans have little to fear from hunters. That’s because swans—tundra swans migrating through Minnesota, and the larger trumpeter swans that breed here—are fully protected.

The swans that had just touched down on the lake were unmistakably the huge, majestic trumpeters, the dead-giveaway being their call. It sounds very much like the bicycle horns of our youth, which were sounded by squeezing a round rubber chamber to force air through the horn’s “trumpet.” The first primitive automobile horns worked that way, too. Tundra swans, on the other hand, are slightly smaller and more abundant continent-wide. They lack the longer, curved windpipe of the trumpeter, and as a consequence their vocals run more to high-pitched whistles or squeals. But when seen at a distance, they are difficult to distinguish one from the other.

The trumpeter swans that nest within Minnesota are a success story in wildlife restoration, aftermarket hunting for food and feathers had eliminated the bird as a breeding species here by the late 19th century. It was reintroduced over a period from the mid-1960’s through the mid-1980’s, with captive birds as well as eggs hatched and reared for release, obtained from National Wildlife Refuges in Montana and South Dakota.

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By 2015 there were an estimated 17,000 trumpeters in Minnesota, and now that number is thought to be nearly 30,000. Thanks to similar efforts by South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, the mid-continent population of trumpeter swans in the central U.S. is estimated at nearly 65,000.

I also encounter swans where I hunt on a National Wildlife Refuge that was a site for some of the first efforts to reintroduce breeding trumpeters to Minnesota. Not more than a week ago, as I sat in my camouflaged boat looking out over my decoys, I heard that familiar trumpeting call behind me. Over a screen of cattails the sextet came into view, trumpeting loudly and not more than 15 yards away, and so large they looked like ponderous cargo planes.

They passed over my decoys and landed perhaps 75 yards away, then—calling and muttering constantly—gradually swam back in toward the decoys. No doubt they had seen the several swan decoys I use. I do this for the sake of their great visibility, to attract the attention of the passing ducks that are my intended customers. Among the six swans were two nearly pure white adults, and four of their young—cygnets, they’re called—whose immature coloration can best be described as dirty gray.

Swans can be aggressively territorial during the breeding season, but are more gregarious during the fall migration. This group seemed intent on socializing with my decoys. Eventually—due to the cold shoulder my plastic decoys gave them, or sensing a human presence—they swam out toward the open lake, then launched into that foot-paddling, across-the-surface takeoff run that is needed to get their immense bodies airborne.

In Minnesota, swans are probably second only to loons when it comes to the reverence and protectiveness they evoke in people. Clearly, their absence for three quarters of a century before being restored as a resident waterfowl species has added to their charisma.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that limited hunting of swans is allowed in 10 states, including North and South Dakota here in the Midwest, and in states in the West and along the Atlantic Seaboard. Most of these states issue limited harvest permits—“tags”—by lottery drawing. In those long-ago days when our wildlife was thought to be an inexhaustible natural resource, swans were prized table fare in 19th century restaurants that served wild game. They were the holiday centerpiece of feasts enjoyed by royalty in Europe and the British Isles. No surprise, then, that in our own time, some who have sampled them declare that “a swan is the best eating bird that flies.”

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In some cases today’s harvest is driven by both the biological rationale for it—unchecked numbers of a species can damage their habitat’s capacity to support them, and negatively impact other species—and to limit agricultural crop depredation. The latter has been true in places like North Carolina, where some farmers whose fields are grazed by wintering swans refer to them disparagingly as “sky carp.”

The fact that there are different attitudes about the legitimacy of hunting and killing certain wild creatures—deciding what is “fair game”—is no great surprise. It’s true not only with swans. Minnesotans and wilderness lovers elsewhere would never envision the killing of loons to be legitimate and acceptable. Yet loons were once shot and sold for the wild game markets, as well as by local custom, as questionable as it might seem to dine on a bird that eats little else but fish!

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To those who grew up within the borders of towns and suburbs, the plaintive notes of the mourning dove are remembered as one of Nature’s early morning wake-up calls. To a substantial number of Minnesotans, the mourning dove is considered a songbird, deserving to be off-limits to hunting. There was substantial hue-and-cry when the mourning dove was given game bird status in Minnesota in 2004, after being closed since 1946. Yet doves are the most widespread, abundant and hunted gamebird in the nation. They are difficult to approach, quick to take flight, extremely fast and elusive on the wing, highly edible and meet the standard of “game bird” more fully than some other game species whose status we would never question.

On the global stage there are still more examples. In some parts of Europe, the shooting and eating of larks—a songbird in anyone’s bird guide—has been practiced for centuries. Then there is that “four and twenty blackbirds … baked in a pie” of nursery rhyme. Yes, a real thing, though no longer commonly practiced in the British Isles.

All of which makes it clear that “fair game” has always been a moving target, shaped by custom, culture and conscience, and—hopefully not least, in our own time—informed by good sense and sound science.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORSNORTHLAND OUTDOORSMEMBERS-ONLYHUNTING
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