Project seeks to return native species of swans COLUMBIA WEST


If you take a morning stroll around Wilde Lake, chances are you'll spot Walter Burlingham performing his civic duty -- checking on a small bevy of swans.

That may seem an offbeat enterprise, but it fits right in with his work as chairman of the Columbia Waterfowl Committee, now in its second year of conservation and educational efforts for waterfowl and other wildlife that make Columbia's lakes their home.

Mr. Burlingham's morning ritual is part of an effort by the waterfowl committee and the Swan Research Program in Airlie, Va., which hold permits for the birds, to ensure that the swans on Wilde Lake are protected.

Those swans -- a hybrid species called trumplings that are considered excellent parents -- are part of a long-range project of the committee and the swan research program to reintroduce native species of swans to Maryland that were nearly wiped out by early settlers.

The committee and the people at the swan program hope to replace swans on Columbia's other two lakes with a native swan species called trumpeters. The orange-billed mute swans on Lake Elkhorn and Lake Kittamaqundi are indigenous to Europe.

"The hope is that by having native swans on the lake it will lure in wild tundra swans migrating to the Chesapeake," said William J. L. Sladen, who heads the Swan Research Program.

Tundra swans, however, won't land in a body of water frequented by the aggressive mute swans, Dr. Sladen noted.

He hopes that by next year trumpeter swans can be placed with the trumpling adults on Wilde Lake and that the effort to reintroduce native swan species to the area will be launched.

The Columbia project could prove an important element in the larger research effort aimed at reintroducing native swan species to the Chesapeake region, he said.

Columbia's three lakes, and the fact that the town has a group of people dedicated to protecting the swans and other waterfowl, have made it an idea site for attempting a reintroduction of the native trumpeter swans, said Dr. Sladen.

"The committee has done a really fantastic job of protecting the swans and educating the public about the need for wetlands if wild waterfowl is to thrive," he said.

It's not clear when the five mute swans might be replaced with trumpeters. And the mutes might have to be tamed a little so that they can be safely rounded up when the exchange is set.

The swans have to be trained to come up the banks of the lake and be lured into cages or a van for relocation.

That would avert the risky venture of attempting to catch the birds on the water, where they spend most of their time.

Few lake strollers know the popular mute swans aren't indigenous to the area, said Mr. Burlingham.

In fact some people are so fond of the birds they want to feed them.

One of the committee's key efforts these days is urging people not to feed swans or other waterfowl and wildlife around Columbia's three man-made lakes.

Such feeding can make some animals dependent on humans for survival, leaving them vulnerable in winter when strollers aren't around to feed them.

Mallards on the lakes have been virtually domesticated because of feeding by humans, Mr. Burlingham said.

The committee is working with village boards to have signs posted around the lakes warning people of the negative effects of feeding waterfowl and wild animals.

Perhaps no sign, though, can match the force with which waterfowl committee member Helen Thompson, popularly known as the swan lady, spreads the message of conservation and protection, said Dr. Sladen.

"She is a formidable presence on the lakes. She patrols it with a long stick, and any kids she spots feeding or harassing the waterfowl get a pretty strong talking to," Dr. Sladen said.

Mrs. Thompson, a retired teacher, and other committee members are also working on a project to educate lake fishermen about which kinds of tackle can be dangerous to waterfowl.

The committee has found that fishermen will often release hooks snagged on underwater rocks and other items by simply cutting the line. That frees the rod from the snag, but hooks have proved deadly when they lodge in birds' throats or stomachs.

Such an incident prompted Mr. Burlingham to become involved with the waterfowl committee.

He was taking a stroll around Wilde Lake one morning when he encountered a group surrounding a swan up on the bank with a hook and line hanging from its bill.

"No one knew who to call for help, and before long it was too late," recalled Mr. Burlingham.

There was a silver lining to the episode: Mr. Burlingham and Mrs. Thompson, who had met on morning strolls at Wilde Lake, decided that a group was needed to coordinate protection efforts for the swans, ducks, geese and occasional migrating blue herons or egrets. With the help of the Columbia Council, the waterfowl committee was established.

One of its first projects was compiling a list of people to be contacted in another emergency. The list now includes veterinarians.

The six-member committee is drafting new fishing rules for the council to consider to prevent wildlife losses.

The committee is considering:

* Requesting that the Department of Natural Resources shift its trout stocking from Columbia's lakes to Centennial Lake, a county-operated recreation area. That would help reduce trash around the lakes and curb lake use by people from out of town.

* Ban fishing from the south side of Wilde Lake and establish a bird sanctuary in that area.

* Ban bait fishing and the use of barbless hooks. That would require fishermen to use artificial tackle, which generally is more expensive, thus increasing the incentive for fishermen to retrieve snagged tackle rather than cut it loose, said Mr. Burlingham.

The committee hopes to have new rules in effect by next spring.

In the meantime, the committee is launching a drive to get volunteers from every village who would patrol the lakes and will continue educational efforts aimed at protecting the waterfowl and swans on the lakes.

Dr. Sladen, a retired Johns Hopkins University ecology professor who agreed to place swans on Columbia's lakes at the request of Columbia founder James Rouse, said the swans probably have played an important role in heightening awareness for the need to protect wetlands in urban areas.

"The idea behind putting swans on lakes is that just about everyone sees them as really beautiful birds. Therefore they make great ambassadors for wetlands protection," he said.

"Columbia used to have a terrible problem with waterfowl being killed and dying from ingesting hooks. Over the years, the swans have sort of raised everyone's sensitivity that waterfowl should be protected."

Looking to the future, Dr. Sladen predicts that Columbia could see a day when the big news isn't the latest wildlife casualty but the city's enviable position as a stopover favored by wild tundra swans making their annual migration to the Chesapeake Bay.

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