The Weekend Tourist // Trumpeter swans in Monticello

A woman living on the Mississippi River in Monticello looked out her window one day at trumpeter swans gathered on the shore and threw them some corn kernels. That was 25 years ago. Sheila Lawrence, known as the Swan Lady, started a legacy that continues today — and this winter you can be a part of it.

Trumpeter swans are the largest of North America’s waterfowl. They weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, stand 4 feet high, have a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, and live up to 25 years. Their brilliant white feathers and contrasting black beaks are a photographer’s delight. Swans mate for life and live in 6-foot wide nests often built over beaver dams. They prefer shallow waters to forage on aquatic plants. Though they don’t usually dive, their long necks can reach 4 feet below the water’s surface to curve around rocks and logs for food. Their agile necks have more vertebrae than any other mammal including a giraffe!  

Though trumpeter swans are often seen on our lakes and rivers today, the swan population plummeted in the late 1880s because their feathers were prized for hats and quill pens. By 1930, when it was apparent they were going extinct, a national wildlife refuge was created in Montana for the country’s few remaining swans. Luckily, that population grew.

In 1960 Three Rivers Park District received 40 swans from Montana to release into our park system. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources joined the restoration effort in the 1980s by acquiring eggs from Alaska, incubating them, caring for the young, then releasing the birds. They’ve placed more than 350 swans throughout the state. Thanks to these conservation efforts, today we have more than 5,000 trumpeter swans in Minnesota.

When Sheila Lawrence began feeding the swans in the 1980s she couldn’t have had any idea how long it would continue and how many people would thank her. After 25 years of hauling buckets of corn to the shoreline, Sheila passed away last year. Her husband Jim continues her work feeding the swans every morning at 10:30 from mid-November until the swans leave in March. There’s a small pocket park with a viewing station for visitors to watch. Jim feeds thousands of swans, Canada geese and ducks nearly 1500 pounds of shelled corn a day. It looks like a swarm of bees and sounds like a cacophony of hoots and squawks — they were named “trumpeter” for a reason!

When I arrived a little after 10 there was already a crowd. Plenty of long-lens photographers were there too. Bring binoculars for a closer look. And bring along a few dollars — there’s a cute free-will coffee and hot chocolate station and donations are accepted to help pay for the corn. It’s fun to watch the swans come in for a landing — they look like 747s hanging in the air. Then they put their feet forward and plop down into the water. It’s amazing to see so many at once. I saw hundreds. I’ve heard there are fewer swans in Monticello this year because they’re able to find food in the fields with this warm weather. But don’t worry, you’ll see plenty.

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Plan your visit

Monticello is about an hour from Downtown Minneapolis. From 94: take Monticello exit 194. Turn right on County Road 18, left on Mississippi Drive. The park is on the right, past a few houses. Viewing season is November through March.

Pie break
Just off 94 (exit 201/202) in Albertville is a new Emma Krumbee’s restaurant. Stop in for freshly baked pies and donuts. The nearby Albertville Antique Mall, in an old creamery, is stocked with all kinds of treasures.