Trumpeter Swans Embark on First Flight in 200 Years

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(12/18/1997) - A CORNFIELD NEAR WARRENTON, VA -- Trumpeter swans successfully began the first leg of their experimental migration to the Eastern Shore of Maryland at 7:50 a.m. EST today, following an ultralight plane as it lifted off from a cornfield near Warrenton, Virginia into the early morning light. The brilliant white and gray birds successfully completed the first leg of their historic journey, crossing the Potomac River into Maryland in view of the nation's capital. "Participating in this journey is thrilling because it is the culmination of months of pioneering work by The Migratory Bird Project," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife, at the bird's first landing point. "Although the group of swans is small, they could make big history in wildlife conservation because they bring their species one step closer to restoration to the east coast."

The swans are expected to continue across the Chesapeake Bay tomorrow. Citizens can follow the progress of the journey and view photos of the magnificent white and gray birds on the worldwide web by checking Defenders of Wildlife's web site at: www.defenders.org.

Three female swans -- YoYo, Sydney and Isabelle - began the historic flight by completing the first leg. They may be joined by several other swans transported enroute by truck as the journey continues over the next several days to a wintering site managed by Defenders of Wildlife on the Eastern Shore. In the spring, the birds are expected to return to Virginia on their own.

Building on the techniques first used with Canada geese as depicted in the movie "Fly Away Home," The Migratory Bird Project--a partnership between Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Studies at Airlie--has worked for months this year to raise the swans and plan their journey.

The experiment has provided new groundwork for future wildlife migrations. Seven cygnets born at Environmental Studies at Airlie in Warrenton, Virginia, form the core group of the first migration. Separated from their natural parents before hatching, the swans have been imprinted on humans and trained to follow the ultralight.

The human-led migration is utilizing and expanding upon the ultralight migration training techniques pioneered by Bill Lishman of Operation Migration of Canada and Dr. William Sladen of Environmental Studies at Airlie. Operation Migration is assisting The Migratory Bird Project with the flight. Piloting the ultralights are Gavin Shire and Joe Duff.

The trumpeter swan is the largest -- and, some believe, the most magnificent -- species of North American waterfowl. Once heard throughout temperate and arctic North America, its melodious "co-ho-co-ho" call disappeared from the Atlantic Flyway soon after European colonization. The swans enroute still retain some of their adolescent gray coloring, but will turn completely white.

The great white trumpeter swan, with its diagnostic all-black bill, vanished as a result of commercial feather collection, hunting and agricultural conversion of wetlands. The bird was an early victim to fashionable society's need for powder puffs and feathered hats.

Defenders of Wildlife, a leader in wildlife restoration efforts such as reintroduction of the Yellowstone wolf, notes that trumpeters are unlikely to return the eastern seaboard on their own because migration routes are passed from one generation to the next. Restoring an eastern population will ensure the long-term survival of the species because remaining populations in the lower 48 states are vulnerable to such perils as continued loss of wintering habitat. The concentration of wintering flocks at relatively few sites makes them vulnerable to disease. There are no trumpeter swans east of the Great Lakes, where the population is just beginning to migrate.

"The ultimate goal of The Migratory Bird Project is to restore migratory trumpeter swans to the eastern seaboard. Today's flight was an important step in that direction," said Bob Ferris, Director of Species Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. "Trumpeter swans will also help restore balance to the important wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay and enhance our environment for future generations," Ferris, an Eastern Shore resident, added.

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Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270