“It sounded like the Gestapo coming for Anne Frank!” he said, as he described the flight of birds he had heard that day, flying directly over our house. “Like a European siren you hear in foreign films – something between a bugle and a bassoon.” We hear the Canada Geese on their “fly-abouts” every day, so I knew that T.M. had experienced something special.
My hopeful guess was that we had been graced by a flock of Trumpeter Swans. And that was a long shot, given that they had been hunted almost to extinction in the early 20th century. But in my “Birds of the Great Plains”, their voice is said to “be a loud bugling, which is produced when air is forced through the long windpipe that runs through the keel of the bird’s breastbone.”
And I recently read that they are making a comeback, everywhere from Nebraska, the Dakotas to our own Minnesota. That could be partly because we no longer need their excellent feathers for lovely quill pens. And we’ve moved on to bison burgers and heritage turkeys for our culinary adventures.
If they were primarily hunted to extinction for their feathers and meat, you can see why we no longer yearn to prepare the following recipe: “To bake a swan, scald it and take out the bones, parboil, season with pepper, salt and ginger, then lard it, and put it in a deep coffin of rye paste with a store of butter, close it and bake it very well, and when it is baked, fill up the vent-hole with melted butter, and so keep it. Serve it as you do Beef Pie.” Yum?
But I have longed to see them for myself. Cygnus buccinator is our largest water fowl, often measuring 6’ by 7” feet with a wing span of 10 feet and an ability to fly up to 80 miles per hour. And they live for up to 30 years. Impressive. No wonder that Zeus took on the form of a swan in order to woo Leda, the Queen of Sparta, and that their union produced one of the renowned beauties of the world, Helen of Troy.
Just 50 years ago in Minnesota, there were none. By 1994, with concerted conservation effort, there were 250. Today, it is thought that there are 1500 in the upper Midwest. I counted 24 at the big bend in the Ottertail River near our house on Mt. Faith last week. And just like the Ugly Duckling at the end of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, they “rustled their feathers and raised their slender necks aloft.”