A Swanderful Pair

The trumpeter swan, recognized as North America’s largest and heaviest waterfowl, is a charming avian species, named for its distinctive, trumpeting vocalizations. While there are a plethora of fascinating facts about swans, perhaps the most compelling relates to their tendency to form monogamous, long-term partnerships. Because of this observed behavior, swans are considered a rarity among other feathered species.

When the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s female trumpeter swan, Olivia, arrived at the Zoo in 2017, she was accompanied by her mate of 20-plus years, Sam. Olivia and Sam’s bond was unmistakably strong, according to her caretakers. The pair resided in the Zoo’s Oklahoma Trails habitat, which they shared with the white-tailed deer herd. During their time at the Zoo, the pair raised two cygnets together. Throughout their partnership, Sam and Olivia produced 20 cygnets, which contributed significantly to the conservation of their species.

Sadly, in August of this year, Sam was humanely euthanized due to age-related ailments. He was believed to be in his mid-twenties. In the wild, trumpeter swans can live to an average of 20 years old.

Recognizing a significant shift in Olivia’s behavior in response to Sam’s absence, her caretakers transported her from the Oklahoma Trails habitat to the Zoo’s waterfowl habitat, located near the Zoo’s entry plaza, to provide her with the opportunity to socialize with other birds. Olivia’s caretakers then contacted the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA) Trumpeter Swan Species Survival Plan™ (SSP) coordinator to begin the process of looking for another companion for Olivia.

Not long after reaching out to the SSP, the Zoo’s Curator of Birds, Eddie Witte, was informed of a male trumpeter swan that was residing in a rehabilitation center in Eastern Pennsylvania. The male, referred to by his rescuers as Rocky, was a gunshot victim – sustaining injuries to his left wing and hindering his ability to fly. Rocky also suffered from the effects of lead poisoning, which occurs when the lead from shotgun shells are consumed. His rehabilitators were able to confirm that Rocky could still eat, despite the damage to his head and tongue.

After hearing about Rocky’s rescue and rehabilitation, Witte began to arrange his transportation from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma City. With close coordination, it was decided that a volunteer from the rehabilitation facility would drive Rocky to Cleveland, Ohio, to meet the SSP coordinator, then the SSP coordinator would drive to Greenville, Illinois, where she’d meet Witte for the final transport to Oklahoma City.

After a 30-day quarantine in the Zoo’s Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, Rocky was ready to be introduced to Olivia. On introduction day, Rocky waddled into the waterfowl habitat and was immediately greeted by Olivia who demonstrated signs of excitement at the sight of him. Displays of courtship consist of pairs spreading or raising their wings simultaneously, quivering their wings, head bobbing and trumpeting. All of these behaviors were observed from Olivia and Rocky’s first encounter. Since then, the pair remains close. The Zoo is hopeful that Olivia and Rocky will soon begin producing cygnets of their own.

The OKC Zoo has committed itself to the conservation of trumpeter swans in the wild through its involvement in a critical reintroduction program, in collaboration with the Trumpeter Swan Society, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other AZA-accredited zoos.  

In May 2019, hoofstock caretaker, Lisbeth Pisias, was selected to transport one of Sam and Olivia’s offspring, a one-year-old male trumpeter swan (cygnet), born and raised at the OKC Zoo, to facilitate his release into the wild. Animal caretakers arrived from around the country to release a total of 20 cygnets into three different lakes and wetland habitats in Iowa. The Zoo’s male cygnet was released on Lake Icaria with nine other cygnets.

Trumpeter swans migrate South in small family groups to wintering grounds in the central United States, including open water sites along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and Missouri and west to Oklahoma. In late March and early April, the swans return North to their nesting marshes.

Guests can see Olivia and her swanderful companion, Rocky, at their habitat in the Zoo’s front waterfowl pond. Stay updated on Olivia and Rocky’s developing relationship through the Zoo’s social media platforms.

- Eddie Witte, curator of birds


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