January 12 , 2008

SUBJECT: The Swan Lady of Monticello, MN


Click on the above image for a larger size panoramic view.

On Friday I was asked to speak at the MREA (Midwest Rural Electric Association) conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota—this is not to be confused with THE MREA (The Midwest Renewable Energy Association) of which I have been a member for many years. The topic was solar energy. Although I enjoy talking about renewable energy whenever I get the chance, I always have to check out birding "hotspots" whenever I am on the road.

Half-way between Minneapolis/St. Paul and St. Cloud is a town called Monticello which is home to a very large number of trumpeter swans during the winter months.

Trumpeter swans are native to North America and were almost brought to the point of extinction due to the hunting of these birds for their meat, eggs and feathers during the 1800's. Luckily, a few remaining swans in Yellowstone National Park and the eventual discovery of trumpeter swans in Alaska made a recovery operation possible. Thanks to the efforts of Hennepin Parks in the 1960's and the Minnesota DNR in the 1980's, trumpeter swans are on the rebound in Minnesota. And it is not just Minnesota that has gotten in on the recovery: Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and other neighboring states have programs in place to help restore the trumpeter swan population.

Unfortunately their return has not been without incident. Lead poisoning (from lead fishing weights and gun shot), illegal shooting, power line collisions and loss of habitat have all had a negative impact on the bird's recovery from the brink of extinction.

Monticello Minnesota is located along the banks of the Mississippi River and the swans started showing up there in the winter of 1986. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that during the winter months, this part of the Mississippi River is usually ice-free thanks to a nuclear power plant just upstream from Monticello.

The more important reason is due the Swan Lady of Monticello. In 1986, the Swan Lady was feeding ducks and geese from her backyard when a few trumpeter swans started showing up. 21 years later, there are now upwards of 1,200 to 1,500 trumpeter swans there during the winter.

My first encounter with the birds came on Thursday on my way up to Saint Cloud, MN. There was a light snow falling as I made my way through the residential neighborhood to where the swans reside. This looked like any other town in the midwest until I saw what appeared to be a rather small community park. As soon as I arrived, I knew I was in the right spot. The sound of 1,200 honking trumpeter swans was unbelievably LOUD.

The Swan Lady: Sheila Lawrence

I had a great time photographing these birds in a snowy, winter setting. There was hot coffee and hot chocolate available (for a small donation to help pay for corn) there at the park as well as numerous signs instructing people to read brochures, enjoy the beverages, and signs that read "Do not go beyond this point" and "Donations are welcome". Most of these signs were authored by the Swan Lady.

I started wondering who was this Swan Lady? Was she a mystical entity that watches over and protects the swans? I was hoping I might catch a glimpse of her but with the winter afternoon drawing to a close, I packed up my camera and headed to Saint Cloud.

I gave my speech on Friday morning and quickly headed back to Monticello. Rumor had it that the Swan Lady may sometimes appear during the late morning to early afternoon. That is when she feeds the swans. Low and behold, when I arrived on Friday there she was. As it ends up, the Swan Lady is not a mystical entity but a very good Samaritan. Her name is Sheila Lawrence.

Sheila feeds the swans 1,400 to 1,500 pounds of corn per day. A large corn hopper in her front driveway connects to a series of pipes that routes the corn down to the waterfront where Sheila fills 5 gallon buckets of corn and pours that into large tubs located in various spots where the swans gather in anticipation of their daily feast.

Sheila removes the entangled fishing line from the swans bill.

While I was there, Sheila captured one of the swans. From my vantage point I could not tell what she was doing, but after flagging her down after feeding time she gave me the scoop of why she captured the bird. It was FISHING LINE that got entangled around the bill of the bird. This goes to show how something as benign as fishing line can actually kill a bird when it becomes entangled around a bird's bill.

It truly is amazing to realize how one person's efforts can have such a positive impact on the recovery of the trumpeter swan population. Sheila is truly a guardian saint to these birds.

But the story does not end there. I asked Sheila how much it costs her to feed these birds per day. With the price of corn going through the roof due to the production of ethanol, her current daily cost is $128! Sheila does not receive any compensation from the DNR or the town of Monticello. Her only means of income to help feed these birds comes from donations.

I asked Sheila how we can help. The best way is to make a donation to The Trumpeter Swan Society PLEASE BE SURE TO CLEARLY MARK that your donation is to be used for the MONTICELLO FEEDING PROGRAM . Your donation is tax deductible.

Here are a few photographs of these beautiful birds. Click on the image to enlarge.

Enjoy! —Alan Stankevitz














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