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Inside the Outdoors: Swans have their flight plan: it's departure time

MN DNR file photo.

This time of year, a lot of folks are making flight plans, and sharing them with relatives or friends who will meet them when they touch down. A big reason, of course, is the upcoming holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. This includes my family. I have an offspring who teaches school on the East Coast and will be joining us to celebrate that long ago pilgrim harvest, a holiday that — ironically — is now as much known for football and Black Friday shopping as it is for thankfulness.

A lot of wild creatures are in the flight business this time of year, too. They won't have to deal with long lines, lost baggage or flight cancellations. But theirs will be a more hazardous and arduous flight to a climate warm and hospitable enough for them to find food, hopefully survive the winter and — with more good fortune — make it back North to breed and raise the next generation of their kind.

This past weekend a pre-season dose of winter arrived — with cold and snow — welcomed by deer hunters, received with perhaps less enthusiasm by others. Realistically, we're almost certain to see some temperate weather again before the official start of winter, which is just before Christmas. But we can also count on such reprieves being short-lived, and full-on winter a virtual certainty very soon.

With winter an onrushing reality, this was a weekend conspicuous for swan migration. I know, because I was tramping through accumulating snow in a pair of hunting boots, and at regular intervals my attention would be drawn skyward by their chorus coming down from on high. Few were flying at an altitude suggesting local flight to feed or rest. With few exceptions they were at great altitude, and purposeful in their directness and speed. Most seemed to be angling generally in a southeasterly direction, and I was reminded that a large share of the continental population of tundra swans winters along the Mid-Atlantic Coast; many, many miles away.

If I had been in a duck blind, perhaps on a large lake that is still fluid, I might have seen ducks of one species or another, perhaps with that same high-altitude migratory purposefulness seen in the swans. But ducks in migratory flight are not the loud talkers that swans are. We sometimes hear their wingbeats, and some species — goldeneyes, for example, also called "whistlers" — make a distinctive, audible sound when their wings cleave the air. But ducks in migration are more often seen than heard.

Swans, on the other hand, announce their presence from a great distance. More than once, upon hearing their chorus, I made my way to an opening where they would not be hidden by the canopy of trees. More than any other avian species I can think of, swans to me symbolize the mysteries of migration.

The discordant clamor of tundra swan voices reminds me in an odd way of a crowd at a sporting event, jeering at a referee for a bad call or making cat-calls to unnerve an opponent. Trumpeters, on the other hand, sound more like a musical instrument — hence their name — but in a most basic and unmelodic way. A trumpeter's call sounds as it does thanks to a pronounced loop in its windpipe, different from other swans, and which — not unlike the curves in a horn instrument — gives them their distinctive, trumpet-like voice.

As their name suggests, tundra swans generally nest well to the north. Trumpeters — though they also nest as far north as Alaska, historically nested in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest, and do so today, thanks to a successful reintroduction program that began in the 1960's. Commercial hunting for their meat and plumage dramatically depleted their numbers by the late 19th century and habitat loss was nearly the last nail in the species' coffin within the Lower 48 states. Trumpeter swans were gone from Minnesota by the 1880's, and by the 1930's only about 70 were believed to exist in the Lower 48.

A remnant population was discovered in Montana and a refuge was established to protect them and encourage a population recovery. In the 1960's a Twin City park preserve obtained 40 birds from the Montana refuge, and the recovery here began. Birds were later released elsewhere in Minnesota, they began to breed successfully and now some 7,000 trumpeters are found in Minnesota at some time throughout the year. Unlike tundra swans, trumpeters generally migrate south only as far as is necessary to find open water. The trumpeter swan is considered by many to be one of the great wildlife conservation success stories of North America.

Like Canada geese, swans maintain a family unit through nesting, brood rearing and migration. This is unlike most ducks, whose males desert their mates when nesting begins and have no parental relationship with their offspring. Large flocks of swans are made up of multiple family units migrating together. Ducks may migrate in large flocks, too, but their togetherness is a social instinct that has survival value, and is more a matter of learning from one's own kind, rather than one's immediate family.

Because the continental population of swans is considered stable, hunting of tundra swans is permitted in several states within the U.S., North and South Dakota among them. Having grown up as a hunter in a place where swans are not legal game, and having watched and appreciated many where my hunting partner and I hunt ducks, I have never had a lust to shoot one. This is a prejudice, to be sure, inasmuch as swans are waterfowl and I have no reservations about hunting their "kin," the members of the duck family.

For now, though, they will remain only a stirring sight — and sound — of the autumn migration. That's enough for me.