Whatcom County is blessed with so many wonderful birds—eagles, hawks, owls, Steller jays, and all kinds of seabirds—but trumpeter swans have to be the most magical of all. About 3,800 of the graceful white birds take over the stubble fields of Whatcom and Skagit Counties as they migrate down from Alaska.

They’re part of the rhythm of life here. My neighbor marks her calendar when she sees the swans return in the fall, and again when she sees them flying back in early spring. She took this feature’s main photo on her way to work in Lynden, stopping to admire the swans just after sunrise one chilly fall morning.

We celebrate these iconic birds, but they are in trouble. For several years now, large numbers of them have succumbed to lead poisoning; the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Center treated around 200 sick birds last year. I spoke recently with WHS Wildlife Center Director Alysha Evans about the issue.

What is the source of lead poisoning?

WHS Wildlife Center Manager Alysha Evans. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Humane Society

Lead bird shot is the culprit. Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in Washington since 1991, but much of it still remains in lake bottoms, rivers, ponds, fields, and wetlands—anywhere hunters have been. Trumpeter swans are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because they’re “deep dabblers,” feeding on aquatic plants and especially tubers and rhizomes (horizontal stems). Bottom sediments are where the residual bird shot is found. Water lily rhizomes retain lead in their plant tissues more than other aquatic plants, and they’re the swans’ favorite.

How do you know when a bird has lead poisoning?

“Swans suffering from lead exposure are often very weak, uncoordinated, unable to fly, have trouble breathing, and are often found alone,” Evans says. Lead poisoning by itself is the leading cause of admission to the Wildlife Center, but swans are brought there for a variety of reasons, including power line strikes and being hit by cars. They often have fractures, head and spinal trauma, in addition to lead poisoning.

Who finds the swans and brings them to the Wildlife Center?

Mother swan with babies at the Wildlife Center. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Humane Society

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) employs a swan biologist with funding from Puget Sound Energy and the Snohomish PUD. The swan biologist finds and transports the swans, often acting on tips from the public. There is a hotline to call if you find an injured or sick swan: 360-466-4345, extension 266. Do not try to rescue a bird yourself. Capturing swans is specialized, somewhat dangerous work and should be done by professionals to avoid further harm to the birds.

How does the Wildlife Center treat lead poisoning?

Once the swans are admitted, they’re examined and given a blood test. Treatment for lead poisoning includes daily medications, feedings, enrichment (roaming in a safe area where they can get exercise) and, in serious cases, gavaging (tube feeding) under anesthesia. The primary medication used to treat lead exposure is specialized and very expensive; often multiple rounds are needed for each swan before they can be released. The success rate of treatment is lower than hoped for, but the Wildlife Center works closely with WDFW and local veterinarians to provide swans with the best chance of release.

Swans recuperating at the Wildlife Center. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Humane Society

Where is the Wildlife Center?

The current WHS Wildlife Center is located near Deming, and is woefully inadequate for treating the number of trumpeter swans that come through the facility. “Swans are large birds and need a lot of room while in care,” Evans says, so they can move freely and get adequate exercise. The Wildlife Center lacks a dedicated surgery room, which is needed for all the wildlife in their care, not just the swans.

Ground was broken for the new Wildlife Center in the Irongate District last summer, on the same property occupied by the Whatcom Humane Society’s Curt Sorensen Center for Animal Care & Adoption. The new center will have a dedicated area for veterinary services and a larger capacity for recuperating animals in the right kind of enclosures.

What can folks do to help?

Observe swans if you live near an area they use. Don’t try to handle swans yourself—you and the swan could both get hurt. Call the hotline if you see a bird you think is in trouble. Again, the number is 360-466-4345, extension 266.

Examples of the bands you might see on a swan that is being monitored by the Bird Banding Lab. Photo courtesy: United States Geological Survey

Observing swans also gives you a chance to participate in the trumpeter swan recovery program! Before swans are released from treatment, they’re fitted with a numbered collar, and sometimes a metal leg band. If you see a collared or banded swan, you are asked to report the sighting to the Bird Banding Lab at www.reportband.gov. Your sighting contributes to monitoring efforts. The Bird Banding Lab will then send you a certificate with all the information for that swan.

For more information about the WHS Wildlife Center and its programs, to volunteer, or to help fund the new Wildlife Center with a donation, go to www.whatcomhumane.org.

Featured photo by Cathi LeCocq

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