Trumpeting the Cause for Wetlands

New to the Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Gardens this past summer were a family group of Trumpeter Swans. On public view at the waterfowl ponds near the front entrance are an adult pair (white plumage) and their fully grown offspring (called a cygnet, gray plumage for the first year).

The mating pair, Sam and Olivia, and their male cygnet, hatched in June 2017, were actually my families’ personal swans who made the journey to OKC with us when we moved here after I accepted the director of animal collections position. My wife and two young boys were absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to relocate these animals to be part of a conservation program for the OKC Zoo. Back home in Iowa, we lived on an acreage with a pond where the swans inhabited, so this species has been part of our connection and concern for native wildlife for many years. States in the upper mid-west have been releasing trumpeter swans into the wild for approximately 30 years in an effort to re-establish the species after it was nearly extirpated from the lower 48 states about 100 years ago. My family and I have had Sam and Olivia for roughly 15 years, and just last year we were able to contribute to the effort with a cygnet for a special, “all zoo hatched” release in Iowa. Throughout my employment at the Blank Park Zoo, located in Des Moines, Iowa, we produced 36 birds that have since been released back into the wild.

The species historically nested on lakes and marshes in a wide band across northern United States, Canada and Alaska. However, nearly all of the population east of the Rocky Mountains was extirpated in the late 1800s as a result of market hunting and the drainage of marshes and wetlands. Beginning in the 1960s, state and federal agencies, private individuals and zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium began a series of restoration efforts to return the trumpeter swans to the Midwest through releases into Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio. During the last 20 years, their population has grown from a few hundred released birds to a thriving, reproducing population of over 4,500 birds.

Oklahoma lies South of the species’ historic nesting range, but at one time, it was the wintering home for many hundreds, perhaps thousands of trumpeter swans. History is now repeating itself while growing numbers of trumpeter swans are once again wintering in western Oklahoma as the Midwestern population recovers. The Oklahoma Wildlife Diversity Program assists the Trumpeter Swan Society, a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota that helps to track and monitor the birds. Although all winter-time swan sightings are noteworthy, the organizations are particularly interested in any observation of swans with neck collars. Neck collars are plastic, colored bands used to help the Oklahoma Wildlife Diversity Program track and record the migration routes of swans traveling through Oklahoma.

It is the Oklahoma City Zoo’s hope that the swans living here will produce more cygnets to be released as part of its commitment to assisting with wildlife conservation efforts. The trumpeter swan species, with an impressive 7-foot wingspan when in flight, could be considered a flagship species for aquatic environments across the Midwest. Often, the tagline “trumpeting the cause for wetlands” is used whenever promoting the value of free-flying trumpeter swans and the habitats they require to survive.

– Kevin Drees, director of animal collections

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