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Body of water becomes 'Swan Lake' in River Falls

Trumpeter swans swam along with Canadian Geese on Friday, March 22, 2013, in River Falls, Wis., on the Lake George portion of the Kinnickinnic River with the back end of Veterans Park and an old railroad pier in the left background. Trumpeters are clearly much larger than the geese. Forum News Service photo

RIVER FALLS -- "I saw this big white bird, but I was too far away. I had to check it out."

That was in February. Linda Amundsen was in the parking lot at Family Fresh Market downtown.

From afar she saw an unfamiliar bird on Lake George.

Curious, she went to the White Pathway on the other side of the lake and followed the pathway to the observation deck.

The "big white bird" was a trumpeter swan. There were three swimming along the Kinnickinnic River and into Lake George -- a breeding pair with a young one.

Amundsen, who's walked the White Pathway for years, often with her dogs, said: "I've never seen swans there before ... I've never been that close to a swan."

She added: "With that big white body and dark beak, they're beautiful, very impressive. They are so much larger than a Canada goose."

Since February, Amundsen has monitored the trumpeter swans of Lake George. She counts eight.

"I'll keep coming back to see what happens with them," she said. "It'll be interesting to see if they stay on the lake and grow in numbers."

Amundsen tried feeding the swans leftover dog food, because of its corn content, from home. Then, after reading up that adult swans eat water vegetation and grass, she switched to spinach and dark lettuce.

But what the swans really snapped up was what people often feed the ducks and geese on Lake George: Crackers and old bread.

Tony Steiner, city planner/forester, said he, too, has noticed the trumpeters' presence in the last few weeks.

"I have seen them in the past, but it was not a common occurrence," he said.

Should the swans stay the year on Lake George, Steiner didn't believe their presence would be an issue.

"As far as a problem on the (White) Pathway, they would probably have no more impact than the geese that are already there," he said.

Looney birds

Five springs ago, Lake George drew another bird species rarely seen in these parts -- loons.

The eerie-sounding birds were heard yodeling and seen swimming and diving under the Lake George waters in March and April 2008.

The explanation for the appearance of the migratory, aquatic loon was the long-lasting, brutal cold winter that kept lakes frozen farther north.

Farther back in local history -- and arguably more strange than the loon's presence -- was an April 1987 incident that made the the River Falls Journal's front page: "Mother kills trumpeter swan after it attacks four-year-old daughter."

The "nightmare" encounter occurred below Glen Park on the riverbank near the upper dam and across from the city's power plant.

According to the Journal's story, the swan attack was on a Sunday. Two adult sisters were picnicking with their five children.

The group came quietly to a bench to watch the trumpeter swim by. When humans and bird were about 10 feet apart, one of the mothers said the swan "looked like it went crazy."

The swan chased after a 4-year-old named Angie and knocked her to the ground by the water.

"It was jumping up and down on her stomach and had its wings wrapped around her, poking its beak at her at the same time," the mother said. "She was completely covered by it. I didn't know if she was dead."

The other adult sister then grabbed the swan by the neck and flung it aside. The children grabbed Angie and they all fled.

Even with the kids gone, the swan kept attacking the two women, "snapping its beak at (my sister's) face."

One woman then seized the swan by the neck while the other hit it repeatedly with a shoe. The swan collapsed.

The women ran uphill to Glen Park and flagged down River Falls police officer John Stapleton.

The attacking swan was later found on the ground, head in the water. Stapleton carried the swan to a squad car, placed it on the hood and looked for signs of life.

He tried to listen for a heartbeat with a stethoscope but there was none.

Both women sustained minor injuries, including cuts and bruises. They were seen by a doctor at River Falls Area Hospital.

Angie also was treated at the hospital. She had a sore back and stomach, and some scratches.

Her mother said: "She is very upset, seems to be in shock and sleeps most of the time."

She added about the swan: "I'm very sorry we killed it. But we had to defend ourselves. We tried to get rid of it, but it kept coming back at us."

Trumpeter swans were introduced into River Falls a year earlier in 1986. They were brought in with the approval of the state Department of Natural Resources from a game farm in Dellwood, Minn.

They mostly settled on the city's other manmade lake between the two dams -- Lake Louise.

Occasionally the trumpeters went over the lower dam and had to be rescued by city park workers. They were handled with ease and not viewed as harmful.

However, there were a few complaints in spring 1987 of a swan chasing people on shore.

Trumpet the rise of swans

According to the state DNR, trumpeter swan is the largest waterfowl species native to North America.

Swan skins were sold in the fur trade to Europe where they were used to make ladies' powder puffs. Feathers were used to adorn fashionable hats.

Trumpeters nested in Minnesota and Wisconsin until the 1880s.

By 1900, mostly because of hunting, the species was believed to be extinct in the United States

The extinction outlook proved premature. Various programs were started to protect the habitat and food supplies of trumpeter swans.

Today the trumpeter is not officially listed as threatened or endangered, but in the Midwest it is actually more rare than the bald eagle.

It has no official state status in Midwestern states, except in Wisconsin, where it is listed as a "special concern species," and in Michigan, where it is a "threatened species."

DNR wildlife biologist Missy Sparrow in Baldwin says the state's trumpeter swan recovery program -- begun in 1987 -- has been a "huge success."

"The goal of the WDNR recovery program was to achieve a population of least 20 breeding and migratory pairs by the year 2000," she said. "In 2012 we had 216 nesting pairs in the state, with 332 cygnets (young swans) fledged."

Sparrow said there's long been a swan population that winters in the Hudson area. Some reports put this number at 600.

"In February, the adults leave the wintering grounds to head back to their nesting grounds," Sparrow said. "The cygnets follow them back to the nesting grounds, but are then kicked out. Some of those cygnets do return to Hudson.

"You may be seeing some cygnets in River Falls that have recently been displaced or a pair that is looking for a nesting site. However, I would not suspect that they would nest in River Falls."

Sparrow says it's not unusual to see trumpeters year round in the St. Croix County area. The DNR as well as many volunteers have banded swans for years, but that was stopped in 2012 because of the recovery program's success.

Sparrow said that like any wild animal, trumpeters get defensive around their nests. She's never heard of a swan attacking people.

"That would be very strange," she said. "Trumpeters are not normally aggressive."

Sparrow added this cautionary note about the human influence:

"It is not recommended that people make a regular habit of feeding the swans. Like other wildlife species, feeding can cause the birds to congregate in an area which is an easy way to spread diseases.

"We have had several swans die from lead poisoning this past year due to drought conditions. The lower water levels have allowed the swans to access lead shot and sinkers while feeding in wetlands and rivers."

Sparrow said her feeding advice applies to any wildlife species: "You don't want to domesticate them, so to speak, by interfering with their daily habits and making them reliant on a human-provided food source."