Trumpeter swan find bittersweet for Wenatchee school

WENATCHEE -- The illegal killing of a trumpeter swan, the nation's largest native waterfowl species, has resulted in a bittersweet prize for Wenatchee Valley College's biology department.

"It's a horrible tragedy that someone shot this bird," said Rafe Carroll, WVC biology lab manager. "But now that it's dead, it's an incredible find for educational purposes. You would virtually never find one under normal circumstances."

Carroll and lab student Tara Culbertson were cleaning the huge bird last week as they prepared to stuff it to add to the school's extensive collection.

The college has about 2,000 bird specimens in its collection, said Dan Stephens, WVC biology professor, but it never expected to have a trumpeter swan.

"It's a threatened species. It's like a bald eagle," he said.

Stephens said he will use the swan in his ornithology class this spring.

The college requested and was granted the bird from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The swan will be the largest bird in the college's collection by far, Stephen said. The mature swan is 60 inches in length with a wingspan of 80 inches. It weighed about 23 pounds.

Trumpeter swans were common in the United States until hunting through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries reduced their population to near extinction, according the National Audubon Society. The birds were prized not only for the meat, but also their feathers, which were used to make quill pens.

They were listed as an endangered species, which was later downgraded to a threatened species after numbers began to increase, Stephens said.

They are a common sight in Western Washington, where they winter on the Skagit and Sammish river flats near Mount Vernon. Flights to Eastern Washington are much more rare, however. Stephens said eight were seen in this year's Christmas Bird Count near Wenatchee, which was a record. One of those viewed that day may have been the swan that was shot, he said.

College faculty learned about the bird in early January when a Chelan County biologist spotted it near Rock Island Dam. PUD biologists later captured the bird near the dam.

It was alive, but it had a broken wing and could not fly, Stephens said. The swan was taken to East Wenatchee veterinarian Randy Hein.

He determined the bird was severely injured and could not be saved. He euthanized the bird and performed a necropsy Jan. 5.

In an e-mail to PUD biologist Von Pope and Washington Fish and Wildlife Officer Doug Ward, Hein wrote that the bird was hit by a 5mm steel T-shot pellet from a shotgun that fractured its humerus, the large bone of the wing. He concluded it was highly probable the shooting was intentional and occurred within the previous five to 10 days, according to the Jan. 6 e-mail obtained by The Wenatchee World.

"It was poached. I'm a big-time hunter, and this just goes against the ethics of hunting. You don't do that. I can't even imagine it," Carroll said.

If caught, the shooter could be charged with a gross misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000, said Graham Grant, Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer in Wenatchee.

"But probably, we'd forward it to the U.S. Department. We have a lot of concern for sensitive species," Grant said.