MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Overlooking the vast landscape from the back deck at the Hurstville Interpretive Center off U.S. 61, the singsong chirping of birds drowns out noise from the nearby highway.
“It’s easy to transport yourself from the hubbub to the wildlife area,” said Jennifer Meyer, a naturalist based at the Jackson County Conservation Board headquarters.
From the deck, visitors may see or hear the newest addition to the prairie and wetland habitat below: a captive male trumpeter swan.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources adopted the injured bird and transported it in late January to the swan pond at Hurstville, one of 17 nesting sites in the state. The swan, which still needs a name, lost its right eye to a fishing hook before it was found about 100 miles north of Minneapolis. Wild and Free, a wildlife rehabilitation organization connected to Garrison Animal Hospital in Minnesota, cared for the cob, or male swan, until the DNR transferred it to its current home.
Those involved in the effort hope the newbie will breed with Ginger, the pen, or female swan, at Hurstville. Their cygnets, or baby swans, eventually will be released into the wild to help restore the trumpeter swan population in Iowa.
Nesting appears inevitable
This male swan replaces Fred, who died in January at the pond. He was 20 years old. In captivity, swans may live up to 25 years, Meyer said.
So far, the pair is bonding “rather swimmingly well,” she said. “They know they’re going to nest together.”
But how can she tell?
“They’re excluding Ralphie,” Meyer continued, referring to the other male swan on the grounds. She feeds and monitors the birds at work. The third wheel soon will be taken to a different site in Iowa.
“Typically, we wind up with birds that have injuries and just need a safe place to live,” Meyer said. Ginger previously lived at the Chicago Botanic Garden before she moved here in 2014.
For now, Meyer calls the new cob, Pete, short for "Pete the Pirate," because of his missing eye.
The name game
Prior to mating season this spring, Jackson County Conservation wants the public to give the new guy a permanent name. They will accept suggestions through the end of the month, and as of this week, they had received close to 40 ideas.
After Meyer and her colleagues review the list, people may vote for their favorite.
“They’re one of those giant, sexy megafauna that garner a lot of attention,” Meyer said.
The DNR prefers the term “charismatic” to describe North America’s largest waterfowl, which grow about 4 feet tall, develop 7-foot wingspans and weigh between 20 and 30 pounds. Their webbed feet, about the size of an adult man’s hands, bear sharp claws, Meyer said.
“They honk and fly for self-defense, but if need be, they will rip and shred,” she added.
But Pete cannot leave his open-air enclosure because his feathers have been trimmed, preventing him from flying. Ginger does not have the ability to fly, either.
"It's very unfortunate this guy will never fly, but it's neat that his cygnets will be released into the wild," said Dave Hoffman, leader of the DNR’s trumpeter swan restoration program.
Trumpeters are a native species that nested throughout Iowa before European settlement, but hunting and wetland drainage pushed them toward the brink of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1993, 110 years after the last pair of wild trumpeter swans nested in Iowa, the DNR developed a plan to restore the state's population of these migratory birds. Five years later, the first modern-day hatch of three wild cygnets occurred in Dubuque County.
Last year, 13 trumpeters were released from nests in Iowa, which had 54 nesting pairs in 2017. In the last 20 years, a total of 590 trumpeter swan nests have been recorded throughout the state. Almost 1,200 trumpeter swans have been released since the DNR launched this project.
Sadly, Hoffman said, nearly 75 percent of the released birds die before they reach their breeding age — about 3-4 for males and 5-6 for females.
Statewide, the leading causes of trumpeter swan deaths are power line collisions, lead poisoning, illegal shootings and disease, according to the DNR.
Swans inadvertently ingest lead as they forage the bottom of wetlands with their bills for grit, which they need to break down food, Hoffman said.
In wake of tragedy
The new male swan was relocated to Hurstville just two days before 32 trumpeter swans were found dead in western Clinton County. Lead toxicity was present in the only carcass that was able to be tested, the DNR confirmed last week, but other factors might have contributed to the swan deaths, too.
Lead ammunition was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, but its use for upland hunting, shooting sports and in fishing tackle remains widespread, and it persists for years in the environment, according to the DNR.
Hoffman and Meyer hope anglers and hunters consider using fishing sinkers, or weights, and ammunition composed of alternative, less-toxic metals, such as copper.
Meyer next month plans to introduce Ralphie to students at a few schools in the area with the goal of educating them about swans. She also will cover the importance of maintaining healthy wetlands for “us and them.”
The swans at Hurstville are expected to mate around the first week of May and produce eggs that should hatch in early June. The babies will stay with their parents at the pond for about 10 months until being released the following April.