It was the week before Thanksgiving and colder weather had set in. I tightened the belt on my bathrobe, threw some wood in the stove, and looked out the window to see if any ice had formed on the lake overnight.
What I saw was a chunk of perfectly white snow floating on top of the water. Since it hadn't snowed in eight months I was mighty puzzled. I kept looking at the thing. It was about the size of a bushel basket, and floated quite peacefully across the water. I got the binoculars and found it was a bird grooming its feathers. My immediate thought was it had to be a goose...a very big goose. Then it raised its head and I saw its wonderfully long neck and I knew it was a swan. Since I've never seen a swan in the wild I was pretty excited. Then the bird half rose out of the water, flapping wings that were large enough to catch a chair, and I went slack-jawed. I realized I was looking at a protected species....the mighty Trumpeter Swan.
This was definitely a Kodak Moment. I rushed upstairs to get my photographer, who also doubles as my husband when he isn't behind a lens or a computer. "Trumpeter!" I shouted, and Richard went for his camera, thinking it was either a swan or the Second Coming. A few moments later, Richard was "geared up" and cautiously making his way down the hill toward the lake. I watched from the windows. The swan was cheerfully making figure eights in the water.
As inconspicuous as anyone can be with a camera and a tripod, Richard quietly set up on the shoreline to catch a shot. I held my breath as he fiddled with lens, shutter speed, and the correct aperture. The swan, however, was not as patient. When Richard looked through the camera, the trumpeter was gone. Then came a movement, and the slightest of sounds, and Richard looked down. The big swan was right there in front of him, happily examining the leg of his tripod. This was the beginning of our relationship with "Glider," the swan who wouldn't fly south for the winter.
When the kids got off the school bus, I said, "You'll never guess what I've got to show you." Their returned look was one of curiosity and caution. They never know what Mom might have, since I've hauled home everything from skunks to snakes, and one incredibly humongous leech.
But when I took them to the where the swan was nesting on the beach, they were immediately delighted. We kept at a respectful distance, just sitting in the sand and quietly observing, when suddenly the huge Trumpeter got up and waddled over to. We sat perfectly still as she pulled at Katie's mittens, and pecked a bit at Matt's lunch box. "Maybe she's hungry," Matt said, and slowly opened the lunch kit. The swan was ecstatic now, poking its obsidian beak at a leftover sandwich. Without further ado, Matt pulled off the plastic wrap, broke off a piece of bread, and hand fed the trumpeter all before I could ever say, "Watch your fingers." But I needn't have worried. The swan was huge, but uncommonly gentle. As we all took turns feeding her, we noticed she was wearing a collar. "She's a banded bird," I said and took down the number.
The next day I called the DNR and asked to talk to their non-game wildlife specialist. Pam was quite interested and explained to me that the Trumpeter Swan was virtually wiped out in the lower 48 states around the turn of the century. She said in recent years Minnesota and Wisconsin have been raising Trumpeter Swans in hopes of rejuvenating their populations. Most of the swans came from eggs collected from Alaskan nesting sites. The color of the band told her our girl was three years into the wild and had been raised in Wisconsin. There was one bit of unusual information attached to the swan's chart. A post script said, "She loves peanut butter sandwiches."
In the following days, the swan established a routine that would last for weeks, nesting on the sandy shore to the east of us at night, and swimming out to the west of us in the morning for food. The in-between times she spent at our house. "Glider" learned her name in two days and came from the water as faithfully as any dog when called. She waited for the kids everyday, sometimes coming up on shore before they stepped off the bus. While we tried to give her healthy snacks (corn, whole grain cereal, wheat bread, etc.), if given free rein with a lunch box, Glider chose junk food.
Then came the day when I called the kids in for supper. They tossed Glider the last of the crackers and ran up toward the house, only to have the swan come after them. Spreading her wings, she tried running up hill, squawking like a mother pursuing her offspring. When this proved futile, she launched into flight, landing in front of Katie and Matt. "Just walk quietly into the house," I told the kids from the window, and they did, with Glider now happily in tow. When they opened the door, Glider stepped into the entry way like she'd done it all her life. Only a doughnut could lure her out of the house.
We never let Glider inside again (Trumpeter Swan poop can be intimidating) but she loved to walk around the house, looking into all the windows like a nosy neighbor. For some reason, she seemed to enjoy human contact. She liked the sound of one's voice. Often, while I talked quietly to her, she would stick her head under my arm and seemed quite content.
Eventually, Glider gained fame with the locals (those of us who wouldn't miss a Minnesota winter) and was getting handouts from several Crooked Creek residents. But when the lake froze over, we were all concerned since the bird's natural food source had been cut off. I notified the DNR, and they told us to quit the snacks and she should fly south. She didn't. She continued to sit on the ice, her head tucked under a wing as protection against the bitter wind. After three days, we couldn't stand it anymore. Armed with corn and barley, a neighbor and myself went out to feed Glider. But she had disappeared. "She's finally flown south," we told each other, not believing it for a minute. Two more days of searching and worrying went by, when word came that Glider had discovered a new residence - fish houses. "She just walked right in the door and went straight for the sweet rolls," the fisherman told us. That was our girl all right. She had a real sweet tooth for Minnesota.
The DNR came out a week later, captured the swan and relocated her in the southern part of the state near open water. All of us at Crooked Creek hated to see Glider go but wanted for her what was right and natural. In the meantime, we always keep a box of doughnuts handy in the freezer. We hope she will return someday - and bring her friends.
Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
March 31, 1996