Swan Release a Poignant Moment
Saturday June 19, 1999
Antigo Daily Journal
A giant white swan who may have thought its final song would come in a muddy Highway V field has found new life thanks to some concerned neighbors and Raptor Education Group of Antigo.
The tale began on April 13, when Carley Fronek looked out the window of her rural Antigo home to an adjacent field and noticed an object reminiscent of the previous week's swan migration scene ...except less.
Ray Fronek responded to his wife's beckoning and after some consideration decided the "object" was a plastic garbage bag caught in the dry grass. But, a short time later curiosity got the better of him and he went to have a look. Once on the scene he found a very large white bird covered with muck. The bird's head was under one wing and did not acknowledge his presence. He called out. The bird summoned strength, raised a long neck to his voice, and looked at him. Fronek thought she looked ill. He tried to make her move but she could only make feeble motions. Her legs did not move.
No stranger to wildlife, Ray hesitated to pick the bird up anticipating a painful bite. Instead, she ignored the glove he waved at her. Compassion triumphed over caution as he gently hoisted her in his arms, to his chest. Fronek was surprised as the bird relaxed and moved closer to his body.
"I carried her like a little baby in my arms," He said, recalling the day. "It was my impression that she wanted help."
He took her to the house and telephoned Carl McIlquham, wildlife manager at the local DNR office. Carl transported the swan to the Raptor Education Group, Inc. a bird rehabilitation center south of Antigo, operated by Don and Marge Gibson.
The bird was a Tundra Swan probably left from the flock the previous week. Too sick to continue she apparently remained grounded when the flock continued their springtime trek. She was emaciated and weighed only half her normal weight. Her legs were paralyzed.
The bird was suffering from lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is one of the most common problems with swans. As the big birds strain the bottoms of ponds or lakes for forage lead pellets that linger there are ingested accidentally. While lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting, remnants of over a hundred years of hunting are accessible to any animal that eats where shot fell. The pellets are toxic especially in the digestive system. One pellet can kill a large bird, such as a swan or an eagle.
Treatment began immediately as the Gibson's worked to save the birds life. For ten day's she remained in critical condition. During that time, she required treatment every 4 hours with a compound that removes the lead from the blood. Since any animal with lead poisoning loses its appetite, a liquid diet was supplied through a stomach tube. Finally, just as all hope faded for her recovery...a surprise awaited Marge Gibson as she approached the bird's enclosure on the eleventh day. The bird greeted her standing on her own two feet.
The recovery took a bit over 2 months. That is fast in terms of lead poisoning, the Gibson's commented. Many cases take 6 to 9 months before the bird is well enough to begin flight conditioning, or physical therapy in preparation for release to the wild. Since waterfowl are flightless during the summer due to their annual feather molt, this swan will finish her physical conditioning in the wild.
The Fronek's kept a vigil for the sick swan, calling the rehab center to check on her progress. When it came time for the elegant white bird to go back into the wild on Wednesday, June 16, they did the honors.
"Rehabilitation of wildlife is a team effort, " said Marge Gibson. It is always a case of many people and agencies such as the DNR playing a part. Like with so many things without one piece of the puzzle the effort falls apart." " Don and I hold the permits and care for the bird's that is true, but without the people taking it upon themselves to pick up the bird and seek help, there would be no success."
Ray did not hesitate when Marge Gibson handed him the bird for release. A healthy swan with powerful muscles can take considerable skill in handling. The bird began to struggle, then looked at Ray and gently laid her head on his chest just as she had 2 months previously when it was all she could do. Today, however, she had a choice. He was her hero, and she was thanking him in the only way she could. He carried her to the edge of a remote lake and opened his arms.
The great bird flapped her huge wings, sipped the water, nibbled greens and seemed to celebrate the moment. The Fronek's smiled as she enjoyed freedom again.
"It was well worth it," Ray grinned, "To feel her strength and the need to be free. I feel rewarded many times over for taking a little extra time to help her. It was great to be a part of this. It feels just great!"
Tundra Swans, formerly called Whistling Swans, migrate through the state during both spring and fall. They breed in the far north near the Arctic Circle. They are a smaller version of the endangered and recently reintroduced Trumpeter Swan that has been the subject of journal articles in the past.
All indigenous birds are protected by federal and state law under the migratory bird treaty act. It is illegal to have one in your possession or care without federal permits specifically for the purpose of rehabilitation.
Copyright © 1999 Antigo Daily Journal