Minnesotans Struggle to Save Their Poisoned Swans

UPDATED 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

Hunters may have aimed and fired more than two decades ago, but only today are the deadly clusters of shot finding and felling their fragile feathered targets. Within the last six months, at least 34 of Minnesota's 120 rare, free-flying trumpeter swans have died. The culprits: lead and low water levels.

Although lead shot was outlawed in Minnesota in 1987 and will be banned nationally in favor of nontoxic steel shot in 1991, it will remain a deadly threat to wildlife for generations to come. "Literally tons of lead have been spewed into the environment every hunting season for many, many years," says Pat Redig, 40, a veterinarian who runs the world's only hospital devoted solely to wild birds, at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. "And it takes just one tiny lead shot to kill a bird." Redig estimates that 2½ to 3 million ducks and geese die in the U.S. every year from ingesting spent, lead shotgun pellets.

Meanwhile, the drought in the Midwest over the past two years has lowered the water level in the Hennepin Parks wildlife refuges, home to thousands of waterfowl. At Sunny Lake, where the state of Minnesota has been trying for the past 10 years to reestablish the trumpeter swan (whose numbers in the entire continental U.S. are estimated at only 2,000), the average water depth has fallen from six feet to four. The shallow water encourages the beautiful trumpeters, who need to swallow gravel to help them digest their vegetarian diet, to scoop up the deadly shot from the previously unreachable muddy bottom.

"This is not accidental," says Redig. "The swans search out the lead shot—it's the same size as the gravel they prefer." Once swallowed, the lead passes from the gizzard to the bloodstream and poisons the whole system, killing the bird within eight weeks.

In a desperate effort to save some of the lead-sick swans, Redig and his colleagues are operating on them with a $50,000 fiber-optic and video endoscopy system designed for humans. After the swan is anesthetized and its stomach pumped two or three times, the bird is x-rayed to see if any shot remains trapped inside.

If so, the high-tech equipment is called into play, and the lead hunt is monitored in full color on a video screen. Despite the free equipment (on loan from the manufacturer), the operations cost $1,500 per swan, and 45 have been treated so far. "This isn't in our budget," says Redig. "I hope some swan lovers come forward."

After the lead is removed, the swans face several weeks of convalescence, including treatment with drugs developed for people with ulcers. "We hope to return 70 percent of these swans to the wild as free-flying birds," says Redig. "But it's possible they have suffered permanent damage that will shorten their lives or limit their ability to reproduce."

While the swans recuperate in his hospital, Redig intends to do everything he can for them. Running his fingers through the snowy plumage of one of his lethargic charges, he explains his dedication: "These creatures are works of art, and we have to look out for them. If our environment isn't safe for the wild things, it won't long be safe for humans either."

—Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis

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