Hail the trumpeters, part II: Second swan batch hatches

For the second time in three weeks, a pair of imported trumpeter swans have hatched cygnet babies along the Deschutes River in Bend, while the first ones have doubled in size and appear well on their way to survival, a state biologist said Friday.

The three cygnets that apparently hatched on Wednesday below the First Street Rapids along the Deschutes River Trail may have a brother or sister waiting to come along, as the female might be incubating another egg, said Chris Carey, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Dave Ledder, vice president of the Central Oregon Audubon Society, snapped some photos of the city’s newest trumpeter swan family Thursday. “The parents were very busy, stirring up the water with their feet to bring up food from the bottom for the young,” he said.

If the fourth egg does indeed hatch, that cygnet would be “a few days younger than the others,” Carey said. “That’s probably typical of a first-time nesting female, they are not quite as synchronized” as more experienced mothers.

The baby swans born back on June 7 on Mirror Pond are “doing fine, except a lot of folks are feeding them bread,” Ledder said. Only three of the four cygnets hatched in that nest survived the first few days of life; officials said the other might have fallen prey to a predator.

The Mirror Pond survivors are “doing quite well,” Carey said Friday. “They are growing – they’re about the size of a mallard right now, so they have probably doubled in size in three weeks. So they have kind of gotten past the first step here.”

“We now have 10 trumpeter swans on the river,” Carey said – a great sign of success for a program aimed at replacing the non-native, aggressive mute swans with native trumpeter swans.

Please don’t feed the swans – especially moldy bread, biologist says

The ODFW biologist did express some concern about well-meaning folks feeding the swans bread.

“Moldy bread can be hazardous to waterfowl,” Carey said, instead urging people to feed them cracked corn, available at most feed and seed stores.

“We would prefer that people not feed them,” he said. “Unfortunately, they have turned into little beggars.” And don’t expect mama or papa to curb the trend, Carey said: “Unfortunately, the parents are almost encouraging it. They recognize a sack of bread and come up closer” to shore.

The circle of life is on display all year long at such special spots as Mirror Pond, beside Drake Park. But almost unnoticed amid the pre-summer Frisbee tossing, sunning and dog chasing three weeks ago was a small, bright white and historic sight, gliding by a ways out on the rippled blue water: a pair of proud, parental trumpeter swans and their tiny new offspring.

It’s a first for Bend – and perhaps, for any U.S. city, in terms of trumpeter swans being born in an urban park setting.

While one of the four cygnets apparently didn’t survive its first week of life, possibly due to predators, the hatchings believed to have happened June 7 at a nest on an island in the Deschutes mark a significant milestone in efforts stretching back almost a decade to bring native trumpeter swans to the stretch of river, eventually acing out the non-native, aggressive and problematic mute swans.

There still were three apparently healthy cygnets in view five days later, when officials held a pondside news conference on the hatchings.

Bend pioneer Clyde McKay (for whom McKay Park is named) no doubt had little idea of the problems that would arise in later years when, back in 1929, he released the first mute swan into the pond, as a Kiwanis Club project. Sixty-five years later, the tally was up to a dozen adult swans, 19 “sub-adults” (1 to 3 years in age) and two dozen cygnets, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Chris Carey.

And by the mid-`90s, there was a serious concern about the overpopulation of the territorial mute swans, which “were being aggressive to people,” according to Carey, and also were starving due to inadequate food supply, according to Dave Ledder, vice president of the Central Oregon Audubon Society.

“But the big concern,” Carey said, was that “a winter die-off of significant magnitude would force the birds out of the Mirror Pond area, and we would be establishing a feral population, nesting elsewhere. There is a state law that prohibits (establishment) of non-native wildlife.”

Waterfowl panel’s recommendations were tried, to varying success

Ledder said the Audubon Society wrote to Bend Metro Park and Rec District Executive Director Carrie Whitaker, saying that the swan issue needed addressing, along with the Canada geese (and their droppings), the ducks, etc. A waterfowl advisory committee was created, and along with occasional “goose roundups” and the like, the idea of replacing non-native mute swans with native trumpeter swans was hatched – though not without some consternation on the part of some residents along the pond.

“There were some real angry neighbors along the river,” many of whom considered the mute swans a special part of their home’s setting, Ledder recalled, but “as soon as they understood, now they have adopted the trumpeter” swans as well.

Most of the mute swans were individually trapped or caught, then pinioned (surgery to keep them from flying). The males got vasectomies, while “with the females, we’ve experimented around with things,” in terms of birth control, Carey said.

As a result, there are now just seven mute swans around Mirror Pond, including two infertile pairs that are sitting on infertile eggs. “They still lay eggs and do everything” they had before, the biologist explained. “They kind of had to do that. If you take the eggs out too soon, they just re-lay them.”

Two pairs of trumpeter swans were brought to the pond and released in 1999, purchased from a private breeder in Port Washington, Wis., Carey said.

“For this particular pair, this is the first season they have nested,” the ODFW biologist said. “They probably would have last year, but we kind of changed their territory. We moved them up above the Colorado (Avenue) bridge, hoping they would nest there, but they came back down” to the point. That also caused “a major shift in the territories” of the mute swans – quite the “upheaval,” Carey said, but now, the “balance is restored.”

One cygnet apparently gone: You could call it `Survivor: Swan Island’

When Carey snapped some pictures of the new family the Monday after their birth, four cygnets were in view, but only three could be seen the next day.

“Mortality is fairly high on young cygnets,” the ODFW biologist said. “If they can make it through the first couple of weeks, that’s the critical time.”

Ledder said it’s possible a mink or an otter got one of the cygnets as they sat curled up during the night. It’s also possible that one of the mute swans got to the little one: “If it got near one of those young, they could grab them and break their neck.” Ledder said it might be necessary to temporarily remove a pair of mutes and place them in a holding area.

“They will grow amazingly fast,” Ledder said, “You can almost see them grow before your eyes.”

“The natural predators, there’s not much we can do,” he said. “Survival of the fittest – we’re not going to interfere with that.”

“To establish these trumpeter swans on the river, we think it’s the first time they have been raised within a city park,” Carey said. “I’m not really aware of anywhere else in the country (that’s been done). Most has been on private ponds” and the like.

Biologists, bird-lovers even helped with shortage of nesting material

Ledder expressed some concern that a “possible down side of all of this attention … is that people will want to see them up close and feed them, in order to bring them to the shore for a better look. This could be very disastrous for the young.”

The Audubon Society official urged people who want to see the swans not to feed them or get too close with canoes or kayaks.

Feeding the waterfowl is against a city ordinance, he said, “though not strictly enforced, and can be deadly to the birds. … Also, feeding the birds brings in predators and distracts the adult trumpeter swans from their young, which could lead to their death.” Ledder also warned that amid the “territorial disputes between the mutes and trumpeters … the feeding could open up the opportunity for the mutes to kill the cygnets.”

Nature also got a bit of a boost from man once more after the trumpeters established something of a makeshift nest on an island in the river, north of the Galveston Avenue Bridge. “There was a shortage of nesting material on the island, so we got some cattails, leaves dumped on” the spot, and the swans apparently made use of at least some of it, Carey said.

“This is an amazing thing,” Ledder said, “and a lot of people don’t know,” even if they look out across the water and see the swans. “This is possibly the start of a really good thing that could happen along the river.” The birdwatcher told of a cute moment the other day, when he was down snapping pictures and “one of the little cygnets chased a mallard away.”

“Mute swans do really well in these park-like situations,” he said. “They are tough and multiply. But they are huge problems – back East, they have wiped out vegetation, pushed out native species. … The trumpeters are a little more skittish, and don’t do as well in urban areas. So this is a real success. We’re lucky we have this spot in the river.”

The problem of waterfowl droppings hasn’t been an easy one to resolve. Keeping the geese in the water has involved tries at hazing, even a barking dog over the past few years. “Eventually, the geese were pretty smart,” Ledder said. “as soon as the truck pulled up, red or whatever in color, the geese just moved off the lawn. So I thought, maybe they should just park a truck there.”

So the effort to improve the habitat and interaction with the birds and prevent overpopulation has had mixed success, the Audubon official said.

“But being in the city, with so much human impact – be it the Cascade Festival of Music, the fireworks going off, there being a lot more kayakers than there used to be – it’s amazing they are surviving and doing as well as they do.”

Don’t feed the ducks – well, too much, anyway

“I think a lot of it is, people live down there on the river,” Ledder said. While there have been efforts to keep people from feeding the ducks and geese, it’s a tradition that’s hard to stop – and one Ledder isn’t sure is as harmful as some bird-lovers might fear.

“We found some feeding with swans is helpful,” he said. “There’s a good mix you can feed them, that helps with shell development.”

But what of the old-fashioned, long-time tradition of bread cast out to ducks by young and old? Even Ledder admitted that, shortly after “don’t feed the ducks” signs went up, some friends came to town and had a request – so they bought some bread, went down to the park and, well, were something of wildlife scofflaws for a time.

“I don’t think it does them a lot of harm,” he said, but he added, “Old, moldy bread is not healthy for us or birds.”

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Source: The Bend Bugle ©2002