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Park Rapids' dilemma: To feed or not to feed its burgeoning swan population

Two dozen trumpeter swans and mallards swim in large flocks on the Fish Hook River in Park Rapids. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

PARK RAPIDS - When Brandee Severtson moved to her home on Eagle Pointe Drive four years ago, four trumpeter swans glided up and down the Fish Hook River.

Today there are two dozen.

Over on Forest Drive, on another part of the same river, Patrick and Judy Kruse have counted as many as 16 swans this winter.

"Right now the river's frozen up," Pat said this week. "When the water starts moving again they'll be back. They come down the river, they set in the sun and fluff their feathers."

Swans first came to Minnesota in 1987 in a pilot project to reintroduce them to the region. Since then, the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program has released 350 swans. Their population now numbers around 2,500.

But their prolific success story may now be seeing a downside. Many are dying of the cold, of starvation and other factors. Forty percent of the swans that perish die of lead poisoning, the DNR says. And their sheer numbers make the possibility of an avian epidemic almost inevitable.

But lead poses the greatest threat now.

Swans ingest sinkers and lead shot from lake bottoms foraging for the roots and tubers they survive on.

And herein lies the dilemma.

"Are we supposed to be feeding them?" Pat Kruse said, asking the $64,000 question.

No one's quite sure and the DNR did an about-face on its public position.

Swans congregate in two large camps in Minnesota, on the Ottertail River in Fergus Falls and near the power plant in Monticello.

In both areas groups of citizens actively feed the flocks.

"The population has been increasing in Minnesota, but the birds have not established a strong migratory tradition," said Pam Perry, a DNR nongame wildlife specialist in Brainerd. "Then we get a colder winter like this year, less food is available because more water froze up earlier, including the rivers, and the birds are having a harder time finding food."

Concerned that the birds weren't migrating south, the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked people to stop feeding the swans late last fall, hoping it would give the birds the impetus they needed to winter elsewhere. The DNR feared an avian disease outbreak or worse in the growing flocks.

Worse was what occurred. Hungry birds scarfed up lead pellets like they were sushi, becoming sick and sicker.

Ailing birds turned up at rehabilitation clinics and the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

Some migrated and got shot in southern states where hunters mistook them for geese. Others just huddled together in the cold.

Some of the swans that stayed "became sick from lead poisoning or were injured," Perry said.

The DNR quickly reversed course and reinstituted the feeding programs.

It won't be until later this winter that the agency will know how many actually died.

Kruse said his wife has thrown out corn once. He's not sure if they should continue feeding the swans.

Severtson said she doesn't feed them, but can only speak for herself. The Deane Point location they congregate in is a favorite spot for locals and tourists.

"Most of these homes are seasonal residences so I doubt the neighbors are feeding them," Severtson said. "That's not to say there aren't people driving down there to feed them. If I was a stay-at-home mom it would be a fun thing to do, to bring my kids down there daily and feed the swans."

The 10 percent of the state's swan population that does migrate follows the Mississippi and Missouri rivers southward into Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, DNR officials say. They usually return by April to nest in the same spots they used the previous year.

The DNR doesn't want to be put in the position of advising well-meaning citizens as to whether they should feed or not.

"If you're trying to rescue a particular individual that may be injured or need help, then yes," said Dr. William Isaacson, a Park Rapids veterinarian.

"Right now if the animals are very localized and used to being fed, to go out and look for another food source when there's a foot of snow covering the ground and the lakes are frozen over" may be problematic, he said. The birds may not be able to find other food sources, Isaacson said.

"You would probably want to continue to do so at a moderate rate until alternate food sources become available" in later spring, he added. "You have caused them to become somewhat dependent on you."

But Isaacson said the decision to feed swans - or any species of animal - should be a carefully considered one at the outset.

"When you start concentrating birds, animals or even people there's more chance of disease than if they are allowed to spread out," he cautions.

He says people should decide if swans will be a good mix with the animal population already in the vicinity before starting to feed.

And, he said birds attract predators. Well-fed birds sitting in flocks will be a tempting target.

"You've just provided those predators a buffet," he cautioned. Young swans are vulnerable to foxes, eagles, wolves and coyotes.

Nests and eggs can be raided by skunks and raccoons. And the presence of swans tends to attract other waterfowl, as in the case of the Deane Point swans. Flocks of Canada geese and mallards swim alongside. Those smaller birds can fall prey to hawks and other predatory birds, Isaacson said.

"You have to remember you're not just affecting one thing" in the decision to throw corn out.

Pat Kruse wonders if it's necessary.

"They seem to be healthy," he said of the visitors to his yard near the river. "We've never seen a dead one around here."