Thursday, April 23, 2015

Swan song at Jack Coffey Marsh

It's not clear how the swans felt about all the excitement at Coffey Marsh just north of Promise City Wednesday afternoon --- they're laid-back big birds. But the 80 or so humans present had a wonderful time.

The occasion was release of four trumpeter cygnets, all about 10 months old and three-quarters mature size, into the marsh as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources continues its effort to rebuild a native nesting but free-flying trumpeter swan population across the state. That population for the most part disappeared in the 1880s as humans destroyed its habitat and killed the birds. Wednesday's release was a joint project of the DNR and Wayne County Conservation.

I didn't catch this guy's name, but his human friend is David Hoffman, headquartered at Clear Lake, who coordinates the Iowa Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project for the DNR.

Also on hand was Bonnie Friend, Wayne County Conservation director, who coordinated local details. Wayne County Conservation initiated the idea of a release at Coffey Marsh.

Everyone present who wanted to had the opportunity to touch a swan, but some had more intimate experiences than others. This student --- several youngsters arrived with parents or grandparents and Seymour Community School sent a busload --- helps Hoffman demonstrate the swan's wingspan, up to 8 feet and more in a mature adult.

Coffey Marsh is named for Jack Coffey, of Russell, Rathbun area wildlife biologist from 1967 until his death in 1996. Development of the marsh along the South Chariton River within the Rathbun wildlife management area was his last major project. His son, Jim, was present Wednesday to say a few words, accompanied by Jack's wife, Ivalee, and a granddaughter.

The most intelligent questions, of course, were asked by the 50 or so students present. We learned, for example, that two of the cygnets released Wednesday were wild --- one captured when it flew into an enclosure and the other injured, perhaps in a collision with a power line, then nursed back to health. The other two were hatched from eggs rescued at Blank Park Zoo when flooding threatened a nest, then taken to Algona where a pen (female swan) was brooding a nestful of infertile eggs and substituted.

And that trumpeters usually build their huge nests atop muskrat lodges, creating a penthouse-like effect.

And that trumpeters generally do not pair up and breed until they are about five years old; that both pens and cobs participate in raising their young; and that while many pairs mate for life, others --- just like humans --- divorce and move along. Swans can live, all things being equal, for a quarter century or more.

Because of their size (trumpeters are the largest variety of waterfowl) and aquatic habits, predators are not as much of a threat as in-flight collisions with power lines, lead poisoning (although it is illegal to hunt waterfowl with lead shot in Iowa now, much residual lead remains in the silt of marsh ponds and it is deadly) and mold-based diseases (do not feed birds moldy bread).

After Hoffman's presentation Wednesday afternoon, the four cygnets were freed from their cages, taken into the arms of volunteers and a procession formed to water's edge (most, but not everyone, managed to keep their feet dry).

There, swans and their handlers were lined up and a human tunnel formed to the marsh pond.

Upon release, the swans headed for the water and sailed away (without looking back).

Some of the feathers on one wing of each cygnet is clipped, so they won't be able to fly until after moult during July. Remaining gray feathers, marking a bird as immature, will be replaced then by white and the swans will then be able to fly at will. By the time the are fit to fly and before moving on, it is hoped, they will have patterned Coffey Marsh and will return again and again, eventually to nest.

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