A core of trumpeter swans were trucked from Virginia to New York in September in the first leg of a journey that biologists hope will ultimately re-establish a migrating population on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the first time in almost 200 years.
Later this fall, the plan is for the 20 trumpeter swans to follow an ultralight plane south through Pennsylvania and finally to property owned by the Waterfowl Trust of North America.
“If successful, it will be the first time since circa 1804 that trumpeters have migrated from New York to the Chesapeake,” said William Sladen, director of Environmental Studies at Airlie, VA, which is heading the project.
Trumpeter swans, the largest waterfowl native to the Bay area, were wiped out in the East by the early 1800s to supply the demand for meat, hat feathers, quill pens and down.
Because young birds learn migration routes from their parents, it has been impossible to reintroduce migratory populations until recent years, when scientists learned they could teach birds to migrate by training they to fly behind ultralight aircraft — a concept depicted in the movie, “Fly Away Home.”
The ultralight technique had previously been used to successfully teach Canada geese and sandhill cranes to migrate.
Last fall, as part of an experiment to see if it would work with trumpeters, the biologists led three swans from Airlie to the Eastern Shore. This spring, one of them migrated back on its own and another one would have likely returned except it was caught en route by someone who thought it was lost.
Nonetheless, the scientists felt that was enough of a success to move forward with plans to begin re-establishing a permanent population that will summer in western New York and winter on the Eastern Shore.
In New York, the birds hatched this year will be isolated from the public to help them become “wild” soon after they are led on their fall migration to Maryland. “We want them to fear people,” said biologist Michelle O’Malley.
It’s hoped that after the swans are led to the Eastern Shore, they will return to New York on their own next spring, just as the experimental swans returned to Airlie this year.
The New York site was selected, according to Sladen, because scientists could document that it was used as a breeding area by trumpeters in pre-settlement times.
While hundreds of thousands of trumpeter swans once lived throughout North America, only about 19,000 remain. About 16,000 of those are in a migratory flock that breeds in Alaska and winters in the Pacific Northwest. The remaining 3,000 birds are in a few small, non-migratory flocks in Iowa and around the Great Lakes.
Many scientists believe that teaching the swans to migrate is critical so that they can take advantage of food and weather conditions available in different regions at different times, and to avoid their becoming nuisances as has been the case with flocks of non-migratory Canada geese that have become established.
Trumpeter swans, which are white with a black beak, weigh up to 30 pounds, have an 8-foot wing span, and can stand 4 to 5 feet tall.