Wildlife officials seek killer of trumpeter swan

Rare bird was part of research project

January 30, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

GRASONVILLE - State and federal wildlife officials are looking for someone who killed a trumpeter swan Sunday that was part of a research project in which ultralight planes are being used to teach the birds to migrate to the Chesapeake region - where they have not been seen for more than 200 years.

In an effort that mimics a successful experiment with Canada geese depicted in the 1996 movie "Fly Away Home," scientists coaxed 10 of the rare swans to the Horsehead Wetlands Center near Kent Island from upstate New York on Jan. 18.

The birds, all fitted with collars and transmitters to allow scientists at the center to track their movements as they gradually learn to feed in the wild, were seen by researchers in a secluded area along Cabin Creek in Queen Anne's County around 11 a.m. Sunday. Shortly after noon, a nearby property owner called to report finding one of the birds dead in the water.

The female swan had been shot with a pellet gun, leaving project leaders at the Center for Environmental Studies at Airlie, a nonprofit organization in Warrenton, Va., to suspect "an act of vandalism, not illegal hunting."

"This swan had a bright yellow collar and a transmitter," said Mike Weaver, an investigator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is handling the case with help from Maryland Natural Resources Police officers. "Anyone who saw it, whoever did this, had to know there was something special about that swan."

Trumpeter swans were eliminated on the East Coast by over-hunting. Prized for their meat, their feathers were used as quill pens and their down adorned stylish hats in the Colonial era.

Their numbers dwindled to an estimated 69 in North America by the 1930s, said Donielle Rininger, lead biologist for the project. About 20,000 of the swans now live in North America. They are protected under the federal Migratory Wildlife Act

In June, scientists captured a group of newly hatched swans from a nesting area in Alaska, raised them at the Airlie center in Virginia, then took them to upstate New York, which is believed to be a traditional nesting area, Rininger said. By Dec. 29, researchers began leading the birds south, arriving almost two weeks ago at the Horsehead center.

The swans, which have an 8-foot wingspan and are about the size of non-native mute swans that have become common around the bay, can live 20 years or more and mate for life, although if a swan dies, its surviving partner may find another mate, Rininger said.

"The next step for the remaining swans is to see if they will migrate on their own," Rininger said.

Anyone found guilty of killing the swan could face a one-year jail term and fines of up to $10,000, Weaver said.

A reward is being offered, and anyone who has information is asked to call Natural Resources Police at 800-628-9944.

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