A tragedy in nature has a happy ending

Compassion: How a tundra swan with a broken wing was rescued from a field in Iowa and reunited with its kind in Virginia.

March 09, 2001|By Diane Tennant | Diane Tennant,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - The swan was alone, and that was wrong.

Alone in a field in sub-zero Iowa, when all her family had reached wintering grounds in Back Bay and Hog Island, Va. When rescuers reached her, the day before Thanksgiving, they found her wing was broken.

The tundra swan could never reach the flock in Virginia. Or could she?

Terese Evans of Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Project took the call from animal control. She had an enclosure 10 feet square in her back yard in Waterloo, Iowa. It even had a small pool. She agreed to take the swan, although she worried about how it would do away from the flock. Tundra swans are sociable birds. They mate for life, live in family groups. This swan was alone.

How ideal, Evans thought, if someone in Virginia could take the swan and release it to a flock after its wing healed. She posted the idea on an e-mail service for 650 wildlife rehabilitators and ended with a question: Is anybody out there? It didn't take long to get a reply.

Lisa Barlow of Wildlife Response would take the swan.

In her Virginia Beach home, Barlow cares for many sick and injured animals. Pelicans with frostbite. Deer caught up in fences. She'd never had a swan before.

She hoped to care for the bird until it was stronger and release it right before Christmas. The problem was getting it to her.

$300 for the flight

Commercial airlines wanted $300 to carry it, and then only if the temperature was above 20 degrees so the swan wouldn't freeze to death in the baggage compartment. December didn't cooperate.

The whole month was miserable: snow, ice, fog, frigid. Evans and her husband covered the pen walls to keep the wind out, toted fresh water to the pool every other day, changed the straw bedding. Finally, they bought a heater to keep the water from freezing. The swan spent hours just sitting in her shallow pool. But she couldn't fly, and she couldn't swim, and most of all, she was alone.

The weather broke in January. The temperature at Chicago's airports rose to 30. Evans' phone rang again.

Second swan rescued

A second swan had been picked up in a ditch, weak and thin. Could she take it, too?

A second swan would provide companionship, but it would delay the relocation for both of them. A second airline charge of $300 would apply. The weather might turn bad again. She took the second swan.

Barlow was getting frustrated. Yes, there were tundra swans wintering in Back Bay. No, she couldn't get permission to release there, for fear the birds might carry disease. A vet's health certificate would not help.

She still told Evans that she would take the swans. There had to be someplace they could go.

And a pie-billed grebe

Evans was frustrated, too. The cost of airfare was climbing, and the swans would have to transfer planes at least once. And she had acquired a pie-billed grebe, a hand-sized water bird that also would need release on coastal wintering grounds. The airlines wanted $150 to carry that one.

Evans went to her nursing job at a local hospital. In the operating room, she mentioned the swans. The orthopedic surgeon owned a plane. I'll fly the birds, he said, and Operation Six Wings and a Prayer took off.

On Jan. 27, Barlow waited at Hampton Roads Airport in nearby Portsmouth. The plane was a little late, despite a strong tailwind and a 6 a.m. departure from Iowa. Everyone was cutting it close. Just that morning, Barlow had gotten permission from Hog Island, a state refuge in Surry County, to release the birds there.

The young man in the airport control room was surprised. No, he hadn't heard from a Cessna out of Iowa. Swans? No.

But he left his station to track down Barlow in the parking lot a short while later. I just heard a flock of swans on the radio, heading this way, he said. They're 10 miles out. About five minutes.

She started watching the sky.

Dr. Wilbert Pino and his co-pilot, Mitch Bond, had to remove the rear seats to fit the swans' kennels in the plane. The birds were quiet on the six-hour flight, Pino said.

Barlow put the kennels in her Cherokee and waved farewell to the pilots, who began what would be a 12-hour flight against a headwind back to Iowa. Mission accomplished, Pino said before he left. Barlow thought differently: Mission just begun.

The birds were quiet during the hourlong ride to the refuge in Surry. A large flock of tundra swans was floating on a pond just inside the refuge gates. A wide barrier of reeds and scrubby trees separated the dirt road from open water. Barlow was concerned.

If the weeks in captivity had weakened their muscles until they couldn't fly, the swans could never walk through the barrier to reach the water. What would happen then? There were no other options.

The kennels were lined up side by side, facing the pond. The doors were flung open simultaneously. The swans rushed out.

They stopped, confused, in the middle of the road. They looked from the pond to the James River and back again. They stretched their wings, and began to walk. Barlow held her breath.

Down the middle of the road, then into the brown, dry grass, the two walked side by side, between the river and the pond.

Then the big one launched into the air, and the smaller one followed. They climbed on the wind, banked off to the right and landed in the middle of the flock.

That's too cool! Barlow exclaimed, and turned the grebe loose, too.

Evans was waiting for an e-mail in Iowa, but Barlow lingered on the road, watching the swans. She couldn't even tell which birds they were, among the hundreds on the water.

They had melded into the flock. Two swans, two months, two pilots, two women. The long journey was over, and no one was alone.

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