Recently I have been spending some time photographing a pair of trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) with six little cygnets. This swan family is not in a wilderness setting, but a suburban backyard pond.
Wow, have things changed. When I started my career in wildlife photography 40 years ago, there weren't any swans to be photographed, let alone in a suburban backyard. They were extirpated, which is a term that means they were locally extinct. Like so many species, we humans did a great job at killing them off.
Trumpeter swans were hunted for their meat and for their beautiful white feathers. It’s estimated that a single swan has around 25,000 feathers covering its body; many of these are tiny down feathers which have great insulation qualities. They are a large bird, standing nearly four feet tall and have an impressive wing span of six to eight feet. They are the largest waterfowl species and the heaviest native bird in North America. Adults can weigh 20-30 pounds.
They were heavily hunted, and trumpeter swans were killed off in much of the United States by the year 1900. The same thing happened to so many other species, such as Eastern turkey and whooping crane. Many more suffered the same fate, but from different reasons. Loons, bald eagles, ospreys and others were also nearly wiped out due to chemicals (DDT) in the environment, along with massive habitat loss.
However, with the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s, things started to turn around. Many federal laws were passed to protect these birds and other animals. At the same time, reintroduction programs were launched and many of these species have responded very quickly, and we are seeing the benefits of this combination of laws and work now.
To restore the trumpeter swan, eggs were taken from a wild population that still existed in Alaska and northern Canada. These eggs were hatched, and the chicks raised to adulthood. It was these adults that acted as the "seed" stock for future swans to be released. Slowly over the years, swans were released back into the wild. All these introduced birds had large neck collars with identification numbers. They found each other and started to nest and reproduce, providing a new wild population that we see today.
I recall very clearly leading a bird watching/photo tour in the early 1990s when I spotted my first trumpeter swan in the wild. Up until this point it wasn't possible to see a trumpeter swan in the wild in the upper Midwest, so you can imagine just how excited my participants and I were to see this amazing bird.
These days the trumpeter swans are common in many parts of the country. The other day, I was photographing a pair of swans with their cygnets when a family with two young children and a dog were walking by and stopped to see what I was doing. Even though the pair of swans and six cygnets were about 100 feet away with my camera pointing right at the birds, they didn't see what I was photographing until I told them what I was filming.
I am no longer stunned by the lack of some people’s observation skills, but what really amazes me is that I mentioned to the family that at one point in the not-so-distant past, these birds were extinct in this region and needed to be reintroduced. That means the occurrence of the swans nesting in this park is fairly noteworthy. However, the response I got from the family was they had thought that the swans were always there.
I guess, on one hand, it’s good that people think that swans are "normal." But on the other hand, if we don't understand our past or at least have some knowledge of the history, it's going to be a problem. You know what they say about history. If you don't know or understand your history, you are doomed to repeat it. Let's hope not.
Until next time ...