HUDSON, Wis. – A trumpeter swan was seen on Valentine’s Day helping free a sick swan from ice on the St. Croix River near Hudson. Days later, it was a group of humans’ turn to help the bird in need.

Several people arrived on the bank of the St. Croix on Tuesday afternoon with nets, kayaks and a plan to catch a young swan that appeared to be suffering from lead poisoning.

The cygnet was among Wisconsin’s largest wintering flock of swans, but it had isolated itself from others and displayed other signs of lead poisoning – a common problem for trumpeter swans when they eat lead shot and sinkers from river and lake bottoms.

“Lead does so much damage to them,” said Barry Wallace, a Hudson resident who has been helping the area’s swans for more than two decades. “Generally, by the time they’re symptomatic, it’s real poor odds we can save them. But we’re still trying.”

Wallace was among those who came out to help the bird Tuesday. Margaret Smith, executive director of the Trumpeter Swan Society, was also there, standing near where she spotted the bird curled up and stuck to the ice near the mouth of the Willow River on Saturday.

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“It was frozen onto the edge of the ice,” she said. “We thought it had died.”

But then “a little swan drama unfolded,” Smith said.

A swan and her five cygnets swam up to the bird, and the mother, which was not believed to be the parent of the sick bird, started chipping away at the ice, eventually freeing the sick swan and allowing it to get back into the water, where it could warm itself, Smith said, calling the act “really unheard of.”

“Now what we’re here to do is be the human part of the rescue, so the mother swan’s work won’t be in vain,” she said.

As two kayakers began paddling up the mouth of the Willow River, the bird jumped up on the ice and away from the kayakers’ grasp. Wallace and Don Wicklund, of Grantsburg, Wis., approached from the other side with nets, and the bird eventually got back in the water, where it was caught by kayaker Noah Gausman after a short chase.

“All it takes is a real light touch and they stop right there in the water,” said Gausman, who lives in Hudson and has been helping rescue swans since he was a child.

His mother, Mary Wicklund, of Grantsburg, brought the bird up from the riverbank and said it felt “way too light.”

She said she didn’t like the bird’s chances for survival, but “at least we know it’s not suffering anymore – no matter what happens.”

 

Treatment

 

The bird was loaded into a box, and Wallace drove it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville, where it was found to be suffering from extremely high levels of lead toxicity, with several pellets visible on X-rays. The bird also had parasites and was clinically emaciated, according to the center, which admitted 59 trumpeter swans last year, 43 of which had lead poisoning.

The center planned to schedule a gastric lavage that would use water to flush the lead from the bird’s system.

While the trumpeter swan population rebounded significantly since it was reintroduced in the late 1980s, it’s still common for birds to die from lead, said Sumner Matteson, avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“It takes one or two spent lead pellets to sicken or kill a trumpeter swan,” Matteson said. “Lead has long been viewed as the kind of Achilles’ heel for swan restoration programs.”

Wisconsin went through a period with no known breeding pairs in the state, but estimates last year put its trumpeter swan population at 3,000.

The St. Croix River at Hudson, where there is open water during the winter, generally contains 200 to 300 swans this time of year, Wallace said.

The birds that stay there during the winter are known as short-distance migrants, said Matteson, who helped reintroduce trumpeter swans to Wisconsin. Those birds breed just north in Wisconsin’s Burnett and Polk counties, and then travel down to Hudson for the winter.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.