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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Trumpeter Swans: Of Lead, Whirligigs, and E.B. White

Air Date: Week of

Compassion and creativity can be powerful together, especially when you add in some persistence and a sense of urgency about an endangered species. Bob Carty has this story of a device used to scoop gun-shot out of waters where the bullet lead is poisoning Trumpeter Swans. Author E.B. White reads from his book, "The Trumpet of the Swan." and the music in the piece is by Jane Sibbery.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Compassion and creativity are powerful forces. They can become even more powerful together, especially when you add in some persistence and a sense of urgency about an endangered species.Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty has our lead story this week. It's the story of a book, a bird, and some bullets.

CARTY: I remember some years ago introducing my son to his first chapter book. It was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Three full weeks of delightful nightly bedtime reading. Which is why, when I heard a story about trumpeter swans, I decided to drive out to a swamp in the middle of southern Ontario to see some people who are trying to make that book come alive.

(Guitar and E.B. White narration: "They all swam downwind to the end of the pond. They pumped their necks up and down. There was a tremendous commotion: wings beating, feet racing, water churned to a froth. And presently, wonder of wonders, there were 7 swans in the air." Fade to a running brook or stream)

CAMERON: Look right over there. You see 5 birds coming in? That's the prettiest sight you've ever seen. These free-flying birds, man, coming in, and they just come right over top, like a concord and they're calling.

(Swans trumpeting)

CAMERON: Listen to this, you'll hear sounds coming now.

(Trumpeting continues)

CARTY: That's beautiful.

CAMERON: Unreal, eh?

CARTY: Mary Cameron is the swan keeper at the Y-Marsh Wildlife Center, about an hour and a half north of Toronto. And beside her is a trumpeter swan named Sidekick. Sidekick has deep black eyes, a black bill, and snow white feathers everywhere else, and she almost comes up to Mary's face. This is North America's largest water fowl: 5 feet tall with a wingspan of almost 7 feet. Wings that are so powerful that an angry trumpeter swan can beat a man to death. But the bird beside Mary is gentle and playful. Mary nods her head. Sidekick bobs her 3-foot-long neck. Mary makes a noise and the bird imitates.

(Sidekick blurts)

CAMERON: If you're interested in the inside works of a swan, they have an extra loop in their windpipe and that's what gives them the trumpet sound. Almost like a French Horn sort of thing.


CAMERON: They have a great repertoire of sounds and everything and everything has a meaning. And I just wish I understood it all.


CARTY: The author E.B. White wrote his book about trumpeter swans in 1970, in part because at the time they had almost disappeared. The Y-Marsh is one of several locations where conservationists like Don Foxhole and Kim Gavin are trying to reintroduce the bird.

GAVIN: Y-Marsh is a cattail marsh. You can easily see muskrat, beaver, blue-wing teals, mallard ducks, snapping turtles, a whole array of wildlife. Traditionally, both the Huron and the Iroquois Indians were in this area. One of the reasons we got into the trumpeter swan reintroduction program was archaeological studies had shown that there was bones from trumpeter swans, and that perhaps that may have been one of the main diet sources for the Huron Indians.

CARTY: Native people may have hunted trumpeter swans, but they didn't threaten the species. Trumpeter swans have been known to be able to fly even with an arrow stuck in their bodies. So until 200 years ago, the North American population of trumpeter swans numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But then, as Don Foxhole explains, a new weapon came to the marshes.

FOXHOLE: They declined primarily because of the advent or the introduction of firearms, and a trade in their skins. And that would include the large primary feathers and the down. By 1937 trumpeter swans were considered on their way out, because they could find less than 100 in North America. The gene pool was so low they felt that they weren't going to survive.

CARTY: Trumpeter swans were put on the Endangered Species List, and they might have gone the way of the carrier pigeon. But then, a separate population of trumpeter swans, previously unknown, was discovered in Alaska. Since the 1950s conservationists have been breeding those Alaskan swans with the remaining stock in central North America.

FOXHOLE: Y-Marsh got into the trumpeter swan reintroduction program in 1989. We first released trumpeter swans in 1991; in Œ93 we had the first wild nesting swan in Ontario in over 200 years. That's a free nest. That was a big day for us when we had wild-produced trumpeter swans.

CARTY: But then things went terribly wrong. The trumpeter swans were sick and dying.

FOXHOLE: They weren't flying. They're not eating and they're very lethargic and they gape a lot, like their bill's opening and closing a lot. We would take them over to the local vet service and they would subsequently X-ray them. And it became obvious on the X-ray plates that they had ingested lead. There was lead in their gizzards and you could actually see the pulse on the X- rays.

CARTY: Where's the lead from?

FOXHOLE: This is a hunting area, and lead was, is from spent shotgun shells.

CARTY: Shotgun shells. Before the wildlife area was created, the Y-Marsh was a favorite spot for duck hunters. Every shotgun shell contains up to 260 lead pellets. And most of those pellets don't hit their target but fall into the swamp and settle on the bottom. And lead kills. Ironically, all of this was foreseen by the author E.B. White. In his book The Trumpet of the Swan, the father Cobb introduces his young cygnets to the swamp and to its hazards.

(Guitar and E.B. White narration: "Welcome to the pond and the swamp adjacent," he said. "Welcome to water. Welcome to danger, which you must guard against. Beware of lead pellets that lie on the bottom of all ponds, that's there by the guns of hunters. Don't eat them. They'll poison you." Fade to gurgling water.)

CARTY: But the trumpeter swans of Y-Marsh haven't read E.B. White, and Kim Gavin says his warnings have proven all too true.

GAVIN: During the spring there's obviously not a lot of plant material available, so the swans will dig for things such as fingernail clams.And a lot of times they'll also pick up pellets, mistaking it for grit to help aid in the digestion of their food. Consequently, this goes into their gizzard, where it's broken down and moves into their bloodstream, causing neurological damage, not eating at all, and eventually going into secluded areas where they will fall prey to either scavengers or die.

CARTY: The trumpeter swan reintroduction program was in trouble. Forty percent of the birds were dying because of lead poisoning. Hunters had been prohibited from using lead gunshot in the area for years, but decades of earlier hunting had left maybe millions of lead pellets in the swamp sediment. It was a problem that defied simple solutions. Kim Gavin.

GAVIN: People obviously set out first to excavate the lead pellets. You can't go into a wetland and start excavating large areas. The environmental damage to that is just too large to even imagine. The other recommendation was that you use a large magnet to pull the pellets out. Well, lead is not magnetic, so therefore we had to rule that option out as well. We had to find a solution that was going to be the least environmental damage to the surrounding wetland.

CARTY: Kim Gavin and Don Foxhole began scouring the Internet, looking around the world to see how others had solved the lead pellet problem. And they found ÷ nothing. So they began their own experiments. If they couldn't take the lead pellets out of the swamp, they wondered if it was possible to make them sink deeper. Trumpeter swans usually feed in only the top 2 inches of the sediment. If the pellets sank below 4 inches, the birds couldn't get at them. At first they experimented with a system of air injection but that disturbed the sediment too much. And then they came up with a totally novel idea.

(Loud engine)

CARTY: To see the way they solved the problem, Don and Kim took me for a 20-minute motorboat ride out to the far end of the Y- Marshwhere, floating on top of the water, beside the cattails, was a small barge. And on top of it, a very odd-looking machine. The only one of its kind in the world.

FOXHOLE: We call it the whirligig, after an aquatic beetle that screws around on the surface of the water, is specially adapted to live at the water's surface. On the end of the barge there's a mini-excavator arm mounted. And at the end of the excavator arm there's a device we call ÷ it's a lead-sinking device, and it's a vibrator. It's 3 feet wide and approximately 5 feet long and it has a series of tempered metal rods 28 inches long. It looks similar to a hairbrush, with very wide tines.

CARTY: For a very big head.

FOXHOLE: For a very big head, yeah. (Laughs) It would be kind of brutal combing your hair with it. (Laughs with Kim)

CARTY: Can you show me how it works?

FOXHOLE: Yeah. (Engine revs up) We're just repositioning the vibrator device. We'll put it down into the sediment. The vibrator for probably 8 seconds, lift it back up, move it over, and treat the area in an arc at the end of this boom. (Engine continues) And our research and testing has proven that this device and the technique that we're using is extremely effective in moving lead pellets below the reach of trumpeter swans. (Clanking sounds along with the engine sounds)

CARTY: Kim, you have a big smile.

GAVIN: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about this, actually. This is the first time I've had a chance to come out and actually see it remediating a site. We've been working on this project since 1994, and to think that something so simplistic is doing something that hopefully will be beneficial in the long run, for the health of marshes.

CARTY: So, what do your friends say when you tell them that you're out in a swamp with a vibrator?

GAVIN: (Laughs) I get it all the time. That's what I mean, that's why we like to use the word whirligigs for the vibrator. (Laughs)

(Engine and clanking sounds)

CARTY: The vibrator, or the lead pellet sinking device, is slowly covering the hot spots in the swamp: the places where the swans nest and where there used to be a lot of hunting. So far it seems to be a great success. Some birds still have low levels of lead in their blood, but the number of lead poisoning deaths is down from 40% to 5%. And the company that developed the vibrator has taken out a patent and is hoping to use it in remediating other wetlands across North America. A story with a happy ending, almost. As an independent charity, the Y-Marsh Wildlife Center has had some financial difficulties. It had to lay off many of its staff. There will still be some funds to continue the lead sinking program, but the people who have come to know and love the swans have received layoff notices. Mary Cameron is finished in 30 days. She's thinking a lot about her birds, and the experiences she has had with them: experiences right out of a children's book.

CAMERON: When you sit on the shore and have an adult male sit beside you, and you're sitting watching his cygnets hatch out in the nest, and you're accepted 2 days later when the little babies are off the nest, and you walk in and sit amongst the family, and they just sit there and watch the babies and watch you and you're totally accepted. And (sighs) yeah, next month I'm done.

(A swan trumpets)

CAMERON: But that's okay, as long as the birds are looked after. That's all that matters. If I ever come back to Y-Marsh again, I hope to see 6- and 7-generation swans living here at marsh or around the area. I'd like to come back here and I would like to see thousands of birds flying over giving this call. That's what I would like to see happen.



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