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Winter Swans Across Iowa
Posted: 02/12/2013
by Joe Wilkinson, Iowa DNR

As I walked closer, four trumpeter swans paddled effortlessly to the far side of the open water. An aerator keeps an area of this pond from icing over. Displaying their nonchalance, one or two cut loose with their namesake ‘trumpet’ calls. More like a French horn, I guess.

“They’re just beautiful to watch; kind of entertaining. We’ve actually had them walk up in the yard. That, we didn’t expect,” recalls Sandy Tull. She and husband Terry Tull look out on a real-life wildlife canvas from their home just outside Sheffield, in northern Iowa.

The female swans are here for the long run; sustaining injuries which prevent their return to the wild. Since they can’t fly, they need to be kept near open water—a buffer zone against predators—and have feed. The Tulls provide those. The DNR keeps track of them; perhaps to match them with mates to bolster the agency’s restoration program.

That involvement, though, is being scaled back from 10 or 15 years ago. A big reason for that is that swans have done a good job of returning to wetlands which historically supported them.

“We had 45 nesting swan pairs (in 2012), down from 51 pairs the year before. Swans (though) have done well statewide,” assesses DNR wildlife technician Dave Hoffman. “We did have some struggles with the drought. Some wetlands were dry when the cygnets (young) hatched. As those swans took off cross country, some unfortunately perished because of the dry conditions.”

Still, wildlife officials think swans are at viable levels in northern Iowa; where more wetland remain in the Prairie Pothole Region. About 20 will be released this year…primarily in the south. Meanwhile, wild swans are showing up in more and more places—in cold weather as well as during nesting season.

Besides spreading the wealth, so to speak, they hope swans – the largest waterfowl in North America – continue trumpeting the cause for wetlands.  “(They) stress the importance of wetlands for habitat—a place to nest,” says Hoffman. “However, those wetlands are also sources to improve our water quality; Nature’s filters. They act as sponges, too; releasing water slowly during floods.”

Ironically, these big birds thrive in the shadow of a long-shuttered clay tile factory; tiles used for draining wetlands and fields in the first half of the 1900s, prior to development of plastic products; which are now more economical and easier to work with.

You can assist with restoration by reporting any swan sightings through the year. On the DNR website (, click on the Education bar and then Trumpeter Swan Reporting for details. A key aspect to that tracking assistance is reporting the color and ID of bands on the swans.

“Volunteers have been instrumental in the past and will continue that role,” stresses Hoffman.  “Volunteers, county conservation departments; other passionate people, too. They certainly help promote and continue the swan restoration.”

The grounded swans also attract wild swans. Tull says they’ll touch down on the pond; stay a few days and move on; geese, too.

“It’s been a great experience; being able to watch them; to tell people about them,” says Tull. “We love wildlife and nature. We are thrilled with the opportunity. It’s been a great experience.”