Wild swans were on brink of extinction

Have you ever seen wild swans? Maybe a line of great white birds, necks stretched straight out in front, wings beating slowly and with great power.

Perhaps riding low in the water, those long necks arched or straight up. Or maybe you heard them overhead–a musical, quavering sound from several thousand feet up.

The swans are the largest waterfowl in North America. Adults, when they are stretched out, measure between four and five feet. There are only two native species, and only one is likely to be seen in Northern Ontario. That would be the Whistling Swan (Olor columbianus).

The other native swan is the Trumpeter Swan (Olor buccinator). It is the larger of the two–perhaps 30 pounds in weight, and with a wingspan of eight feet. As its name suggests, its voice is a deep sonorous double honk, which seems to ring over the lakes and trees.

At one time, the Trumpeter nested throughout much of the west, including Minnesota and probably this part of Canada. But its nesting habit nearly caused its extinction.

For nearly 200 years, swan skins were in great demand. For one thing, the large quills made the very best pens, and the down was used for pillows and so on. Portions of the skins also were very popular for ladies’ hats so the swans had quite a high economic value.

The Hudson Bay Company sold 108,000 skins in London in the middle 1800s. Most of these were Trumpeters because their nests were very easy to find and get at. The North American population fell almost to extinction by 1900.

The Whistling Swan made out a bit better. It nests only on the barren shores of the Arctic Ocean, and winters on the east or west coast, so the only time you will ever see these birds is in the spring or fall when they are in transit.

If you see them flying, the wings almost seem to be beating in slow motion. If you can hear them, listen for a triple note, with the accent in the middle–woo-WOW-woo.

The two swans are almost identical except for size. Both are pure white with black bills. The only really positive identification is to dissect the dead bird’s windpipe. The Trumpeter has an extra loop, which gives it the deeper voice.

Did you know that swans have their very own names? The male is a cob, the female is a pen, and the young birds are cygnets.

All swans are protected from hunting everywhere in the United States and Canada, and the penalties for shooting them can be quite severe. So for you hunters, when the biggest white birds you ever saw come into view, put down your gun and admire them.

They came fairly close to not being here at all.