Feather transplant? MN orgs team up to save swans

Gracefully floating across the water, we can’t tell which swans are the centerpiece of this story, but we do know – wherever they are out in the wild – they are extremely lucky.

"We had two adult swans that came into us unable to fly," says Dr. Renee Schott with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (WRC) in Roseville.

Earlier this year, two trumpeter swans were brought in just days apart to WRC. The majority of feathers on both wings of one swan and half of the other were severely tattered, possibly from hitting power lines, but no one knows for sure. Regardless, not flying means not surviving. It quickly became obvious that "imping" was in order for the swans – which is basically a feather transplant.

"I was like, ‘Huh, We need two sets, and I need more than two sets, because what if some feathers are bad?' I called the DNR to have them keep an eye out… we reached out to the Bell Museum," says Schott.

"It just so happened we had a few swans in our freezer that we hadn’t had the time to process yet," says Professor Sushma Reddy with the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History.

Professor Reddy says researchers are constantly in the process of not only studying deceased animals in their collection but also adding animals that have died more recently, so they can learn even more. Reddy sent wings from a couple of swan carcasses to WRC, where, with careful precision, half a dozen staff members patiently sized and replaced feathers on the wings of both swans... one by one.  It took a total of six swan carcasses to collect all the feathers and sizes needed.

"The swans were anesthetized for six hours," says Schott. "It’s a very long procedure because we have to be so perfect about it."

"This is not something we typically do, and we jumped on it," says Reddy. "Here’s a way for us to expand the use of our specimens.  We’re constantly looking for new ways of doing this."

Reddy wasn’t the only one celebrating this connection between unused swan carcasses and living swans in need of a second chance. PhD student David Wolfson has been part of a project collaring and studying swan migration for years. As he points out, swans are rather mysterious. After being extinct in Minnesota for decades, trumpeter swan eggs were brought from Alaska in the 1980s to reintroduce trumpeters back to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.

"They are a species people care a lot about, and there are changes going on with their numbers coming up," says Wolfson.

The feather transplant is another success story, with both swans released the next day.

"It’s a huge relief," says Schott. "You are so worried that something might happen, or it might not go perfectly, or the feathers aren’t exactly perfect?"

In the future, when the swans molt or shed these borrowed feathers at the end of summer, new feathers of their own will grow in their place.

"The feathers were physically damaged, the feather follicles were intact," says Schott.

This collaboration bought both swans the critical time they needed this spring, and quite the feather in the cap for all involved.

"If I can help a couple of them get back to the wild, it’s totally worth it," says Schott.

The Bell Museum of Natural History recently started a new program called "Salvage Wildlife" – which aims to collect wildlife from across the state.  If you know of a recently deceased animal, contact the Bell Museum, as they may be looking to further study the carcass. More information can be found here.