Bringing the trumpeter swan back to Wisconsin


The saga of returning trumpeter swans to Wisconsin contains all the elements of a good story: a quest that proved difficult from the start, a circuitous journey, failure and eventual success taking place in out-of-the-way settings.

The story begins in 1987 when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) Bureau of Endangered Resources (BER) initiated its Trumpeter Swan Recovery Program, says Chuck Pils, past Friends of the Arboretum president and director of the BER from 1992-1999.

“In 1987 there were zero nesting pairs of these swans,” Pils explains. Hunting and the millinery trade had taken their toll. But how would the BER bring an extirpated native bird species back to its original habitat? Was it even possible? How to begin?

Project leader Sumner W. Matteson and other biologists tried a number of reintroduction techniques. At first, they tried a method called cross-fostering—using mute swans at a southeastern Wisconsin marsh site as foster parents for 35 trumpeter swan eggs taken from captive birds.

The dismal result was only two cygnets (young swans) that reached fledging age. Next came an innovative technique called decoy-rearing, developed by UW-Madison’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and the WDNR, in which cygnets are imprinted on life-size trumpeter swan decoys right after hatching and then brought to sites in northern Wisconsin where they interacted with camouflaged university interns.

Decoy and captive rearing formed the backbone of the BER’s restoration efforts when staff flew to Alaska to collect a total of 385 trumpeter eggs, which they delivered to the Milwaukee County Zoo where they were incubated. Project supporters Terry and Mary Kohler sometimes flew the planes and sometimes arranged for others to fly them.

Annual monitoring of released birds reveals the results, as related by Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society. “The recovery goal was to have 20 breeding pairs of trumpeter swans in Wisconsin by the year 2000,” says Hale. “With a count of 111 nesting pairs in 2007, we have far exceeded our goal of returning this special species to Wisconsin. What a great success story!”

This success story also explains why the WDNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources won this year’s John Nolen Award for Excellence in Restoration Practices, a collaborative effort that involved a great many investigators, government agencies, businesses and individuals.

Researcher Sumner Matteson referenced emeritus UW Professor of Wildlife Ecology Stan Temple, who said the project was “very much a team effort. No one person alone could have brought about such a result.”

Judges’ Note: This_nomination clearly articulated the significant challenges, innovations in approach, and research methods used in the successful reintroduction of the trumpeter swan. This nomination was strong on partnerships, unique contributions through applied management research and implementation practices, and demonstrated outcomes.

Written by Jacky Kelley; photo by Robert Queen, Wisconsin DNR

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.