Swans pass through Snohomish County in growing numbers

SILVANA — Trumpeter swans bend their long white necks toward the muddy ground. Around 50 black beaks peck at discarded corn cobs. Their squawks, loud and brassy, overtake the moos of cows and the chug of a nearby train.

Swans used to be a rarity in Silvana. Now, like snow geese in the winter, farmers expect them.

“There’s no question that swans are increasing and they’re increasing their range,” said Mike Davison, a district wildlife biologist for Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re seeing more birds in more places. Skagit County used to be the center of the universe for trumpeter swans in particular. Now we have swans in Whatcom County and across the border in British Columbia. We’re seeing a substantial increase of birds in Snohomish County where they weren’t before and we have birds in the San Juan Islands.”

The number of swans in the Puget Sound region has doubled in the past 10 years to 9,554 this winter, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In Snohomish County, the number of swans has more than tripled from 439 to an all-time high of 1,475.

“It’s quite phenomenal,” said Mike Blackbird, president of the Pilchuck Audubon Society. “All good poets, their souls are supposed to be taken up by swans. That’s kind of a neat thing. And when you see a group of swans flying over your head they’re certainly poetic.”

While the number of swans in Snohomish County is up, there are fewer swans regionally than there were last winter.

Trumpeter and tundra swans are spreading their wings and venturing to new places.

Silvana and Arlington have seen more swans than usual, as have King and Whatcom counties. However, nearly 2,000 fewer birds were in Skagit County during the annual count than last year.

Experts aren’t sure what to make of the change. It could be a one-time event, or it could indicate that after years of growth, Washington’s swan population has stabilized and is now moving around.

“Swans do what swans do. And every year they can do something a little bit different,” said wildlife biologist Martha Jordan, chairwoman of the Washington Swan Working Group. “We can second guess. We can theorize. We can know what they’ve done consistently for 20 years and they can change in a heartbeat.”

Trumpeter swans were nearly extinct in the early 1900s; with just 99 in the lower 48 states, Jordan said. They began migrating to Skagit County from Alaska in substantial numbers in the early 1960s. By the time Jordan began studying them in 1976, a few hundred wintered in the region.

Now Washington has the largest concentration of wintering trumpeter swans in the lower 48 states.

As swan habitat in Alaska improved, perhaps because of global warming some biologists theorize, more birds survived for the trip south.

“There’s milder conditions and earlier springs,” Davison said. “There’s better vegetation growth, better insect growth, more water in more places. All of those afford opportunity for breeding and survival of swans that probably didn’t exist 15 to 20 years ago.”

However, there are also dangers.

A record 30 swans died this year at Sunday Lake near Stanwood because of lead poisoning, Jordan said.

Swans generally get lead poisoning from consuming lead shot used in past years for hunting waterfowl before a 1991 ban.

It’s illegal to hunt swans in Washington. If the population continues growing, a swan hunting season may eventually be created, but Davison doesn’t expect proposals anytime soon.

Snow goose hunting is allowed in Washington in season. Snow geese are smaller and have shorter necks than swans, with black wing tips and pink bills. Swans are all white with black bills.

Swans nibble at discarded corn and potatoes in farmers’ fields. But unlike snow geese, they don’t usually eat entire crops and are less likely to irk the farmers who chase after snow geese with rifles and noise cannons.

“The farmers deserve more credit for feeding these animals,” said Don ­McMoran, agriculture and natural resources educator for the Washington State University Extension Office in Skagit County. “We see people coming from all over the U.S. and all over the world to view them and, really, if it wasn’t for farmers and the feed they provide, these birds wouldn’t be around.”

In Silvana, several swans crane their necks skyward and take off.

Looking for new pastures, they fly away — necks extended, wings flapping, trumpets blaring.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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