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Snow birds

A wintering flock of trumpeter swans has put Monticello on the map.

A family watches swans in Monticello.

© Beth Gauper

A family watches the swans from Swan Park.

It's winter in Monticello, and the livin' is easy.

For trumpeter swans, the largest water bird in North America, the Mississippi River town is a virtual Club Med, thanks to balmy waters from the nuclear power-generating plant upstream and a daily all-you-can-eat spread of dried corn.

The first swans showed up in the winter of 1986, as the late Sheila Lawrence was feeding the ducks and geese in the yard of her riverside home. They appreciated her hospitality, and every year more came, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.

Now, as many as 2,000 trumpeter swans winter around Monticello, the highest concentration east of the Rocky Mountains. Typically, half of them belly up to the buffet at the Lawrence house each morning, consuming 1,600 to 2,000 pounds of corn, with a little help from ducks and geese.

It's quite a sight. In the morning, the big birds begin to congregate on the water in front of her house, feet skimming the water as they glide to a landing on outspread wings of 7 to 8 feet.

Sticking close to kin, they soon turn the shoreline into a raucous playground, blustering, showing off and squabbling over insults, real or imagined.

The noise is the first thing everyone notices. From the street, it's a buzz, like a nest of angry hornets; from the river's edge, it's cacophony, a high-pitched tumult of honks, squawks and screeches.

Onlookers also have increased by the hundreds, sometimes clogging the narrow, dead-end residential street with cars and even tour buses.

The tiny "park" next to the Lawrence house, where people can watch the swans from behind a rail fence, actually is a storm-sewer easement, and there's never been space for parking.

The city considered moving the swans to a real city park on the other end of town but it turned out Mississippi Drive is the perfect place for wintering swans.

There's a shallow shelf on which swans can rest, the current is slow and there's no boat or people traffic — although trumpeter swans are aggressive with each other, they're very skittish around humans.

Sheila Lawrence feeding trumpeter swans.

© Beth Gauper

For more than 25 years, Sheila Lawrence fed the flock from her back yard on the Mississippi.

In Monticello, the swans tolerate only Jim Lawrence, who took over for Sheila when she became ill in 2010. He moves among the swans  with slow, measured steps, filling tubs and throwing out corn.

Sometimes, photographers ask if they can get even closer, but he always say no.

"The swans are right here, just in front of them," said Sheila Lawrence before her death in April 2011. "There's no other place you can see something like this around here."

A good show

Every morning, Jim Lawrence starts up the auger that moves corn through a pipe, from the gravity wagon in the driveway down to the river, where he empties it from buckets into tubs.

Sometimes, he pulls out binoculars to better see the band number on a bird, which he reports to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

It's a lot of work, and he does it every day for as long as the swans stay, usually from mid-November through February.

In February, parents start to drive away the 1-year-old cygnets, and the 3- and 4-year-olds start to select mates, whom they will keep for life. That's when the amorous behaviors begin.

"You can tell in various ways — how they hold their necks, how they hold themselves," Sheila Lawrence explained. "They'll kick their feet, and raise themselves out of the water."

It's a show that onlookers appreciate.

Rebounding population

Considering trumpeter swans weren't even seen in Minnesota between 1884 and 1966, when Hennepin Parks started to breed them in captivity, the size of Monticello's swan population is astounding.

By 1930, trumpeter swans were thought to have vanished from the entire United States. Then a few nests were found near hot springs in a remote part of Yellowstone.

More nests were found in Alaska in the 1950s, and Minnesota was the first state allowed to collect eggs from them, using funds contributed by taxpayers via the "chickadee check off." 

In 1933, the entire country had only 50 breeding swans; now, Minnesota alone has 17,000. Some winter along the Otter Tail River in western Minnesota, and others in quiet pockets along the central and upper Mississippi and St. Croix.

A few go to Oklahoma and Arkansas for the winter, but most stay in Minnesota year-round.

Ideally, Minnesota's swans would resume previous migration patterns and head south for the winter. But many of those who did were shot, and others have found habitat near locks, dams and power plants that didn't exist 200 years ago.

Trumpeter swans come in for a landing in Monticello, Minn.

© Torsten Muller

Trumpeter swans come in for a landing at Swan Park.

Before she retired, Sheila Lawrence had switched to nights at her job so she could spend more time with the swans.

"The trumpeters really captured my heart," she said. "If you watch, you realize what special birds they are. They're so majestic, so graceful and beautiful; they're just beautiful birds. They're just amazing.''

Trip Tips: Swan-watching in Monticello

Getting there: It's about 40 minutes west of Minneapolis. From I-94, take the first Monticello exit, which leads to County Road 75 (East Broadway). At the first stoplight, turn right onto 39, drive a quarter-mile and turn left onto Mississippi Drive.

Drive past the park and around the cul de sac, parking on the south side of the road only. Observe posted signs and do not block residents’ driveways.

When to go: Jim Lawrence feeds the birds at 10:30 a.m. every day from mid-November through February, and it’s fun to watch the swans flying in. However, for quieter observation, you may want to visit earlier or later.

Before traveling to Monticello, check the city swan update. On warmer days, the swans may go into the fields to feed.

Swans also can be seen downstream, just inside the city limits at Battle Rapids, where there’s a clearing off County Road 39.

For details on planning a swan-watching getaway, see Winter weekend in Monticello.

What to wear: Standing is a cold business, and the warmer you dress, the longer you can watch. For tips, see Staying snug in winter.

Taking children: Make sure they read the 1970 classic “Trumpet of the Swan’’ by E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web’’ and “Stuart Little.’’ It’s about Louis, born without a voice, and Sam, a boy who loves wild things.

Information: Monticello tourism, 763-295-2700; Trumpeter Swan Society.

Last updated on January 27, 2020