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Swans may be off the endangered list but danger still lurks in area waters

Trumpeter swans seem to have personalities all their own as they gather around the feeding bin that Wallace just filled.

It is that time of year when bird watchers, nature photographers and curious tourists migrate to Hudson to see our unique population of trumpeter swans. Over 200 people visited just last weekend. The species was reintroduced to Wisconsin in 1987 and removed from the endangered species list in 2009. But they are still in danger by something lurking in area waters -- lead sinkers from fishing lines.

Because this is a low water year, Barry Wallace, the First Street Hudson resident who has been monitoring, feeding and transporting swans in need for 22 years, is concerned the deaths from lead poisoning will be high this year.

On Monday, 200 swans were ready to greet Wallace as he hauled three buckets of corn to the St. Croix River shoreline near his home. Before Christmas, over 400 swans were gathered in Hudson.

"They will be back," said Wallace. "It depends on the weather. A lot of them are going between here and the Missouri, where the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers meet."

"We have had 100 swans die here of lead poisoning in the time I have been monitoring them," said Wallace. "Already this year 12 have died in Burnett County, near the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area and eight in New Richmond's Lundy's Pond. That was a real hot spot this year."

"Lead was banned from being used in bird shot in 1991," said Wallace. "There is nothing we can do about the shot that is already in the area waters but we can do something about the lead sinkers. Most people don't understand the damage it does."

"I have been a hunter and fisherman all my life so I know I have contributed to the problem," said Wallace. "Sportsman always help with conservation and they need to help with this as well."

"Lead is so toxic we have taken it out of everything else including paint and gasoline," said Wallace. "The tackle manufacturers have come around. They are making sinkers out of tin, tungsten and bismuth. The difference in cost is very minimal. It is really a matter of education."

After all these years, Wallace is painfully aware of the symptoms of lead poisoning. First the bird separates itself from the rest of the group staying on the ice near the water's edge. It's neurological effects include head shaking and side to side movement of its head and neck, green droppings and gasping for air upon exertion. Finally the bird maybe alive but frozen in the ice having lost the ability to fluff its feathers for insulation.

"Once you see the head shaking they can't be saved," said Wallace. "If caught before significant damage is done they can be treated." However, usually, the bird is taken over for other reasons, such as flying into the electric wires, wing damage, etc. When they do blood work, if lead shows up, they can be treated successfully. Once they are symptomatic, there is no hope as the damage is done.

So far this year in Hudson, Wallace has had two die and he knows two more are affected.

"From mid-January through February is when I see the most incidents," said Wallace. On average it is 12 a year but this year, due to low water he expects it could go higher. At this time of year most of the birds that become affected are poisoned right here.

"The channel is a hard bottom and later in the winter, it is the area that stays open," said Wallace. When swans tip they can reach four to five feet to the river bottom where they gather the sinkers to serve as grit. "In low water years the death rate is worse. I expect more than a dozen this year and that's just the ones I can see from my kitchen. We are only picking up a small percentage of the birds affected in this area."

How can you help? If you fish, switch to non-toxic sinkers. Perhaps a sign at the boat landing and near the channel bridge suggesting that non-toxic sinkers be used could help.

"I hate to see them try to legislate a complete ban because you always get push back," said Wallace. "It is really more a matter of education."

In the meantime, Wallace will continue his mission of caring for, monitoring and feeding his amazing flock of trumpeter swans all with the approval of the DNR.

"I am always happy to accept donations," said Wallace, regarding feed for the swans. For the most part it is his friends, people who know him well that help out with buying corn for the swans. The heaviest birds in North America, who are also the largest waterfowl, eagerly await Wallace's daily trek from his house to the shore with three buckets of corn, meant just for them. It is not their only source of food. In fact the amount fed is directly related to the weather, snow pack and what is available in area fields.