condemned, but they won't go quietly
By Rex W. Huppke
Published September 11, 2006
MUKWONAGO, Wis. -- The swans that inhabit Grace Graham's
poetry are white as fresh linen. They glide across Phantom
Lake like elegant apparitions, paddling webbed feet into
stanzas she writes before dawn, when it seems the birds
are the only beings awake.
"Along the misty isle, seen by no mortal save me,
they came/White swans alongside as I ran into the silence,
into the fog, into enchantment."
Sadly, Graham's feathered muses suffer one fatal flaw.
They're mute swans, non-native birds the state plans to
shoot and kill to make room for trumpeter swans, a once-wiped-out
native species that, with human help, has returned.
For a writer of verse, it's poetic injustice.
A year shy of 70, Graham is more gardener than rabble-rouser.
By 7 a.m. each day, she's shoulder-deep in the lake's
clear water, feeding slices of white bread to a feathered
family of five.
But in the face of a mute swan massacre, she stands defiant
with others along the lake, poised to fight off Wisconsin's
Department of Natural Resources like a bird chasing predators
from its nest.
"I know they've chained themselves to the redwoods
in California," said Graham, pondering passive aggression.
"It's pretty hard to chain yourself to a swan."
The mute swans have lived here for decades and, like
a more familiar group of two-legged settlers, first came
to America from Europe. Though they've thrived in this
country for more than 100 years, the birds are still branded
Trumpeter swans, however, are as native as the Potowatomi
Indians who once lived on the shores of Phantom Lake.
Hunters had wiped out the Midwest's trumpeter swan population
by 1900, but over the past two decades they've been successfully
Though they share white feathers and an air of grace,
the two species don't get along. Mute swans tend to be
more aggressive--the roughnecks of the swan family--and
chase the trumpeters away. Life on Phantom Lake was forever
changed in May when a DNR official spotted a pair of trumpeters
nesting in the lake's tall shoreline weeds and cattails.
The trumpeters wound up leaving, but the die was cast.
Mukwonagons were told the 40 or so mute swans they've
come to know and, in most cases, love would soon be summarily
shot in hopes the trumpeters would return.
This didn't sit well with those who've filled their homes
with ceramic swan tchotchkes and photos of children kneeling
to feed long-necked birds named Rudy and Rosie.
"Just because these birds are non-native, why would
we have to kill them?" asked Patricia Kujawa, a resident
who along with Graham has been leading the mute swan defense.
"I asked, `When do they get reciprocity?' And the
DNR said, `Never.'"
Though the mute swans have roamed Phantom Lake for years,
the concept of squatters' rights holds little sway in
ecological circles. The DNR's philosophy is simple: If
the native trumpeters come, the non-native mutes must
Pat Manthey is an avian ecologist with the DNR. At a
public meeting last month in Mukwonago, she and others
from her agency were thoroughly heckled--and eventually
run off--by residents who don't fancy having their swans
"It was probably the worst public meeting I've ever
been to," she said, still sounding a bit shaken.
"But when you're dealing with science versus emotionality,
science is going to win out."
Dramas similar to this have played out in communities
across the country. Folks from natural resources agencies
and a number of ornithological groups seek to get rid
of the mute swans, which they consider nothing less than
a winged varmint. In most cases, as Manthey predicted,
science is the victor.
That sends chills down the spines of Mukwonagons like
Nancy Ward, a 15-year lakeside dweller who, from the kitchen,
looks out at the swans each morning before her toast and
orange juice. One pair--aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Swanie--routinely
float to her shore for bread.
"We're just asking the DNR to please leave the swans
alone," Ward said. "They say they're not native
to this area--well, we're not native either. Maybe they
should just get rid of us too."
Many a Wisconsinite would advise Ward to be careful what
she asks for. In this hunting- and fishing-crazed state,
the DNR is viewed by some portions of the populace as
a diabolical entity, or at least diabolically inept.
Some have even raised the theory that the DNR planted
trumpeter swans on Phantom Lake to create an excuse to
blast the mute swans, as if the agency was itching for
Manthey says that of course her department has no ill
intent beyond maintaining the natural order of Wisconsin's
"It's a matter of competition between an exotic,
invasive species and our native waterfowl," she said.
"What we're trying to do is restore our native flora
Following the disastrous meeting last month, DNR officials
have said they will hold off killing the mute swans on
Phantom Lake until another meeting can be held in January.
But, Manthey said: "The end goal is to remove all
free-flying mute swans from the state."
Which leaves parents around the lake wondering what they'll
tell their kids if the ever-present swans disappear behind
the echoes of shotgun blasts.
"I don't belong to any PETA, bird society or Audubon
Society," said Kujawa, riding Graham's pontoon boat
past clusters of swans. "But we live here and we've
seen how they are. They aren't aggressive. I have pictures
of them swimming with my children!"
Graham, the poet, thinks back on a verse she wrote some
time ago: "Swans in parade pass in review, announcing
to all that spring's been renewed."
She let out the kind of sigh that foreshadows a broken
"I try not to think about the fact that they might
very well shoot them come springtime," she said.
"I've had trouble sleeping since June."