A wintering flock of trumpeter swans has put Monticello on the map.
© Beth Gauper
A family watches the swans from Swan Park.
It's winter in Monticello, and the livin' is easy.
For trumpeter swans, the largest water bird in North America, the Mississippi River town is a virtual Club Med, thanks to balmy waters from the nuclear power-generating plant upstream and a daily all-you-can-eat spread of dried corn.
The first swans showed up in the winter of 1986, as the late Sheila Lawrence was feeding the ducks and geese in the yard of her riverside home. They appreciated her hospitality, and every year more came, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.
Now, more than 2,000 trumpeter swans winter around Monticello, the highest concentration east of the Rocky Mountains. Each day, half of them belly up to the buffet at the Lawrence house, consuming 1,600 to 2,000 pounds of corn, with a little help from ducks and geese.
It's quite a sight. In the morning, the big birds begin to congregate on the water in front of her house, feet skimming the water as they glide to a landing on outspread wings of 7 to 8 feet.
Sticking close to kin, they soon turn the shoreline into a raucous playground, blustering, showing off and squabbling over insults, real or imagined.
The noise is the first thing everyone notices. From the street, it's a buzz, like a nest of angry hornets; from the river's edge, it's cacophony, a high-pitched tumult of honks, squawks and screeches.
"I think they need to tune their trumpets," joked John Vander Louw of Woodbury, who came to see the swans with his wife, Lyndis.
Onlookers also have increased by the hundreds, sometimes clogging the narrow, dead-end residential street with cars and even tour buses.
The tiny "park" next to the Lawrence house, where people can watch the swans from behind a rail fence, actually is a storm-sewer easement, and there's never been space for parking.
The city considered moving the swans to a real city park on the other end of town but it turned out Mississippi Drive is the perfect place for wintering swans, said parks superintendent Adam Hawkinson.
There's a shallow shelf on which swans can rest, the current is slow and there's no boat or people traffic — although trumpeter swans are aggressive with each other, they're very skittish around humans.
'It's been a really good deal; we just wish we had another half-acre," Hawkinson says.
In Monticello, the swans tolerate only Jim Lawrence, who took over for Sheila when she became ill in 2010. He moves among the swans with slow, measured steps, filling tubs and throwing out corn.
Sometimes, photographers ask if they can get even closer, but he always say no.
"The swans are right here, just in front of them," said Sheila Lawrence before her death in April 2011. "There's no other place you can see something like this around here."
A good show
© Torsten Muller
Trumpeter swans come in for a landing at Swan Park.
Every morning about 9:30, Jim Lawrence starts up the auger that moves corn through a pipe, from the gravity wagon in the driveway down to the river, where he empties it from buckets into tubs.
Sometimes, he pulls out binoculars to better see the band number on a bird, which he reports to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
It's a lot of work, and he does it every day for as long as the swans stay, usually from mid-November through February.
In February, parents start to drive away the 1-year-old cygnets, and the 3- and 4-year-olds start to select mates, whom they will keep for life. That's when the amorous behaviors begin.
"You can tell in various ways — how they hold their necks, how they hold themselves," Sheila Lawrence explained. "They'll kick their feet, and raise themselves out of the water."
It's a show that onlookers appreciate.
"It's really entertaining," said Julie Gunther of Eagan, who was visiting with her husband, Steve. "It's amazing that something that big can be so graceful."
Considering trumpeter swans weren't even seen in Minnesota between 1884 and 1966, when Hennepin Parks started to breed them in captivity, the size of Monticello's swan population is astounding.
By 1930, trumpeter swans were thought to have vanished from the entire United States. Then a few nests were found near hot springs in a remote part of Yellowstone.
More nests were found in Alaska in the 1950s, and Minnesota was the first state allowed to collect eggs from them, using funds contributed by taxpayers via the "chickadee check off," said Steve Kittelson, the DNR's trumpeter swan restoration coordinator.
In 1933, the entire country had only 50 breeding swans; now, Monticello alone has three to four times that many, perhaps 1,100 swans total. Kittelson estimates another 450 winter along the Otter Tail River in western Minnesota, and several hundred more in quiet pockets along the central and upper Mississippi and St. Croix.
A few go to Oklahoma and Arkansas for the winter, but most stay in Minnesota year-round.
Ideally, Minnesota's swans would resume previous migration patterns and head south for the winter, Kittelson says. But many of those were shot, he said, and others have found habitat near locks, dams and power plants that didn't exist 200 years ago.
"We probably can't go back to that," he said. "We do worry about having all our swans in one basket. It isn't good to grow those numbers indefinitely."
© Beth Gauper
For more than 25 years, Sheila Lawrence fed the flock from her back yard on the Mississippi.
Kittelson expects Monticello's numbers soon will level off. And even though it may not be natural to have more than half of Minnesota's trumpeter swans congregating there, it's safe. Thanks to the Lawrences' vigilance, the swans still are standoffish toward people, as they should be.
Before she retired, Sheila Lawrence had switched to nights at her job so she could spend more time with the swans.
"The trumpeters really captured my heart," she said. "If you watch, you realize what special birds they are. They're so majestic, so graceful and beautiful; they're just beautiful birds. They're just amazing.''
Here's a DNR video that includes Sheila feeding and talking about her beloved swans.
Trip Tips: Swan-watching in Monticello
Getting there: From the Twin Cities, head west on I-94 and take the first Monticello exit, which leads to County Road 75 (East Broadway). At the first stoplight, turn right onto 39, drive a quarter-mile and turn left onto Mississippi Drive.
Drive past the park and around the cul de sac, parking on the south side of the road only. Observe posted signs and do not block residents’ driveways.
When to go: Jim Lawrence feeds the birds at 10:30 a.m. every day from mid-November through February, and it’s fun to watch the swans flying in. However, for quieter observation, you may want to visit earlier or later.
Swans also can be seen downstream, just inside the city limits at Battle Rapids, where there’s a clearing off County Road 39.
For details on planning a swan-watching getaway, see Winter weekend in Monticello.
Donations: Lawrence is not reimbursed by the city or state for the corn he buys. To contribute, put money in the box at Swan Park or send to the Monticello Trumpeter Swan Fund in care of US Bank, 307 Pine St., Monticello, Minn. 55362.
What to wear: Standing is a cold business, and the warmer you dress, the longer you can watch. For tips, see Staying snug in winter.
Taking children: Make sure they read the 1970 classic “Trumpet of the Swan’’ by E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web’’ and “Stuart Little.’’ It’s about Louis, born without a voice, and Sam, a boy who loves wild things.
Last updated on January 5, 2014
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