Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Legacy of the Swan Lady (column reprint)

On October 14th, Stillwater, Minnesota was treated to a most extraordinary occurrence: a visit from two majestic Trumpeter Swans. Such a sight would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. But today, thanks in large part to the efforts of one incredible woman, many bird-loving Minnesotans are experiencing the joy of swan sightings.

In the mid-eighties, central Minnesota resident Sheila Lawrence was winter feeding Canada Geese and ducks along the Mississippi River in Monticello--which doesn’t freeze due to the local nuclear power plant's constant discharge of warm water--when a handful of endangered Trumpeter Swans, two of which had been previously neck-banded by Hennepin Parks, showed up. Determined to learn more about North America’'s largest waterfowl species, Sheila soon made contact with Donna Compton, a Wildlife Technician and resident swan specialist with Hennepin Parks (now called Three Rivers Park District) whose job was to manage the breeding and raising of the swans, plus, compile critical data. Together, the two women dreamed of the day when the Monticello Trumpeter Swan flock could possibly reach a then-unthinkable 300 birds.

To help move toward that goal, Sheila totally devoted her winters to all things associated with the swans. In addition to spending from 6-8 hours per day hauling shelled corn from a 200 bushel gravity wagon in her driveway, she took calls from Conservation Officers and private citizens, who reported sightings of injured swans. Often with nothing more then verbal directions, Sheila located and captured the birds and delivered them to (most often) the Raptor Center in St. Paul for diagnosis and treatment. 

In addition to her caring efforts, Sheila kept meticulous records detailing important information (banding from various states, brood sizes, cygnet numbers, returning birds, etc.) about the wintering swans which she provided to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Hennepin Parks/Three Rivers Park System.

In a surprisingly short time, Sheila earned the trust of these human-averse avians, which allowed her to walk among them at will as if she were part of the flock. This trust allowed her to capture birds and remove tangled fishing lures, fishing line, pop cans and other trash that had become attached while foraging for food. Sheila's efforts saved many birds from an almost certain death.

Today, thanks in large part to Sheila'’s conservation activities, Minnesota'’s population of Trumpeter Swans has grown from the point of statistical extinction to around 6000. It's a phenomenal success story marred only by the April 2011 untimely passing of Sheila Lawrence a.k.a." The Swan Lady." 

 Sheila Lawrence "The Swan Lady" has earned her wings in Heaven. 
Photo appears courtesy of Chris Lommel Photography, Big Lake, MN 

Last winter, with his wife weak from cancer and unable to feed or even view her beloved flock, Sheila's husband Jim took on the task of feeding her 2200 Trumpeter Swans, plus over a thousand Canada Geese and as many ducks. With the help of a gravity wagon and an auguring system which delivers the corn from the driveway to the river, Jim disseminated over a ton of corn each day from the end of November till the birds left in March.

The daily mass feeding is an undertaking that needs to be seen to be believed. Jim Lawrence and the city of Monticello, known as "Swan City," invite all LoveCanadaGeese readers to visit Swan Park, located next to 117 Mississippi Drive, and observe something truly extraordinary. The best time to come is in early January when the winter flock is at peak. People come from everywhere in the US and from all over the world to observe and appreciate the Midwest's--and possibly the world's--largest Trumpeter Swan flock, in addition to many ducks and huge numbers of our beloved Canada Geese. Visitors are asked to respect the waterfowl and stay behind the park's fence as directed by signs. The viewing is fabulous and the picture-taking opportunities are limitless.

Funding for the purchase and delivery of corn fed to the Swan Park waterfowl continues to be paid for by the Lawrence family, with supplemental donations from animal lovers and a few close and loyal friends.

For those interested in viewing the Monticello swans, geese and ducks, please visit http://www.monticellocci.com/pages/swans and browse for the latest info. Prior to a park visit, or to learn more about "Swan Season," phone the Monticello Chamber of Commerce at 1-763-295-2700. Jim Lawrence provides regular updates to the Chamber as to swan numbers and information pertinent to viewing.

In honor of Sheila’s memory and to help continue her legacy, the Monticello community has established a fund which allows wildlife lovers to contribute to the Lawrence's massive feeding efforts. Last winter alone Jim spent $20,000 on corn. LoveCanadaGeese readers who would like to help can send donations to:

Monticello Trumpeter Swan Fund
c/o US Bank
307 Pine Street
Monticello, MN 55362

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