Swan alert

Toolik watches from shore as feeding swans drift in the vicinity. 

I have nothing but admiration for the trumpeter swans that come through here. With plenty of extremely remote swamps and shallow lakes, our area provides wonderful habitat both for nesting and for staging migrations. These huge graceful birds are enchanting as they drift across shallow water, feeding and talking together with clear loud honks that can carry for a mile or more.

Swans typically arrive when the snow has partly melted from the flats but only the edge of the lake ice has thawed. When a spring flood inundates the flats we often spot big flocks feeding, with tundra swans, who migrate on to the Alaska coast, joining the trumpeters. Although smaller, tundra swans look nearly identical to trumpeters but they vocalize with a distinct high-pitched call that easily distinguishes them from their bigger cousins.

Trumpeter swans always seem calm and practical. They rarely panic, but neither do they allow us to approach within about 50 yards. They sometimes approach us, however, especially if we’re onshore instead of aboard a boat, and occasionally glide past a few yards away. But let us slip up on them when we’re on the water? No. No way.

That’s why it shocked us when Toolik killed a swan during break-up a year ago.

We were canoeing across flooded silt flats in shallow water sprinkled with whippy little willow saplings. Mixed groups of trumpeter and tundra swans spread out to feed across the quiet water between us and the nearby hill, where a few of our sled dogs frolicked. The dogs generally ignore swans unless the birds come in quite close, but young Toolik must have noticed something different about one small, quiet swan because he headed straight for it.

Toolik was kind of special, not a local breeding but imported as a puppy all the way from Maine. His heritage linked him to working dogs from Maine, Bush Alaska and Canada, including the illustrious sled dogs once utilized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Although his thick coat and slightly heavier build made him a bit slow and prone to overheating, he loved and excelled at hard work. His round brown eyes glowed with joy and dedication when he gazed at us, but since he was an energetic youngster during moose-calving time, my sister Miki had adorned him with a bright orange electric collar in case his enthusiasm got the better of him.

The swans had already moved farther offshore as the dogs scampered up the beach. They floated gently among the flooded willows with no great concern. When Toolik took to the water in huge splashing bounds, they did what all sensible swans do. They took off.

But the small swan barely moved. Our jaws dropped when it merely turned sluggishly away. Despite water reaching his chest, in a few great jumps Toolik reached the swan. Only then did the bird rise partially erect and sluggishly spread its wings. Instantly Toolik seized the massive bird in his jaws and it fell dead without a struggle.

At least that’s what we saw with disbelieving eyes through loose willows from a hundred yards away. It happened so fast Miki didn’t have a chance to tap the shock collar.

Toolik stood holding his catch, as amazed as we were, until we arrived and he readily relinquished it. A severe problem must have made it behave so lethargically. Lifting the swan into an empty bucket we realized it seemed only half as big as an adult trumpeter, probably indicating it suffered a long-term problem severe enough to stunt its growth.

We started thinking about Covid-19, as yet poorly understood and still on its first surge in Alaska and the Lower 48. We thought about bird flu and other contagious conditions. A cursory exam revealed only rumpled feathers and a weight of 8½ pounds, one-third that of a normal trumpeter. With rubber gloves we double-bagged the dead bird, and although it was illegal for us to even accidentally allow our dog to kill it, we shipped the dead bird on the mail plane to veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen with Alaska Department of Fish and Game for examination.

An initial phone call to Beckmen reassured us that avian flu only rarely affected humans, nor did Covid seem likely. Avian tuberculosis or botulism might explain its emaciated condition, although a botulism outbreak typically included numerous dead ducks. Our bird books reported that avian cholera, enteritis and aspergilliosis also affect waterfowl.

As long-time admirers of the adventurous Kimberlee, we were delighted to soon receive her detailed necropsy report, which revealed sad and surprising news. She confirmed that despite its diminutive size, the victim was indeed a trumpeter, not a smaller tundra swan. Prior to maturity, it had sustained a massive trauma and subsequent infection (a yeast infection, which surprised us) that had severely stunted its growth.

Amazingly, the determined little swan had summoned the strength to migrate north with its flock, but used its final reserves in the effort. With no energy remaining to fight the infection, its emaciated body was overwhelmed by the microbes, especially in the vital organs; the swan was near death when Toolik discovered it.

Toolik had saved the diseased bird a lingering death, but the whole incident affected us with its sad and disturbing tale. We had seen swans in distress before, especially during an early freeze-up when the young cygnets were unable to fly before being caught by ice, but the only dead ones we’d encountered had been so decomposed they didn’t elicit much sympathy. One long-dead bird had been floating in a swamp; the other consisted of a few feathers and bones washed up on the lakeshore.

Fascinating as it is to hold a bird as massive as a swan, I hope I never hold another dead one.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.