Swan Song on Sunset Lake

Photo by Leeanne Seaver
Photo by Leeanne Seaver

By Leeanne Seaver

The swans on Sunset Lake just might be the loveliest residents of Vicksburg. If you live close enough to hear their ten-foot wingspan slapping the water as they propel themselves into lift-off, or to catch the ropey whirring sound of them flying low overhead, you know they make a lot of noise despite the inference of their name: Mute Swans. Floating graciously through the lily pads, they look entirely native to this landscape; but the swans were actually introduced to these waters in the 1940s. Ray Swan and Ray Little of the Vicksburg Rotary Club worked with the Bird Sanctuary at Kellogg Biological Station to bring the original pair of Mute Swans to Sunset Lake. They’ve been here ever since.

The presence of swans imbues a sort of romantic, pastoral blessing on a place. In the fairy tale version of the swan’s story, a cob (the male) and pen (female) fall in love and live faithfully, happily ever after. There is indeed a storied feeling about swans, but the reality is not quite as good as it looks. According to Regional Wildlife Supervisor Steve Chadwick of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources Plainwell office, our Mute Swans are a problem. All across Michigan, they have thrived a bit too much.

The native black-beaked Trumpeter Swans are being pushed out of their natural habitat by the invasive, orange-beaked Mute Swans. Both varieties compete for the same food sources and nesting grounds, so larger size and more aggressive behavior give Mute Swans the advantage. Typical of migratory waterfowl, swans generally return to the same lake where they were hatched. Then they fall-in-love-and-live-happily-ever-after along with each successive generation of baby swans (signets). There’s just not enough room for all those swans. So the Trumpeters have gone, along with a lot of indigenous aquatic flora and fauna that gets eaten up by the hungry, nesting Mutes.

In 2006, the Michigan DNR implemented a swan management program. More rigorous efforts to eradicate the Mute Swan population were undertaken in 2012. Removing adult swans and oiling eggs seem to have stabilized the growth, says Chadwick. “What we have been able to accomplish with our program appears to be working. But it’s really up to local folks to get us involved. We do not go out to lakes and shoot swans. If lake associations are interested in reducing the number of swans on their lake, they need to contact us and we’ll direct them to talk with their local biologist about the options.” In this region, that would be Mark Mills of the Allegan State Game Area Field Office. Mills can be reached at 269-673-2430.

Photo by Leeanne Seaver
Photo by Leeanne Seaver

Eradicating the Mutes might be a moot point in Vicksburg. There are hardly any swans left according to Larry and LaVon Rolfe. The Rolfes have lived on Sunset Lake for well over 60 years and they’ll tell you the swans have been steadily dying out. “You used to see a line of 30 or more swimming along, but not anymore,” says Larry. More care was taken in the past, LaVon added, “Ray Swan used to transfer them to other lakes with open water in the winter time.”

Whether it’s the result of official eradication attempts, or the seaweed overgrowth affecting the food sources and habitat, or even from flying into poorly positioned power lines, the swans aren’t as plentiful as they used to be on Sunset Lake. “It’s such a shame. I never got tired of seeing them. They’re just peaceful and beautiful,” LaVon reflected. Across the lake from the Rolfe’s, residents Dennis and Kathy Forsythe agree. “You’d hear about swans being mean and attacking kids, but we raised our family on Sunset Lake and never had a problem.”

Have the Mutes sung their swan song on Sunset Lake? Whether that would be a happy or sad ending to the story remains to be seen…or, hopefully, heard from Trumpeters reclaim-

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