The Department of Natural Resources asks Minnesotans to carefully consider the situation before reporting trumpeter swans or other waterfowl that appear to be trapped in ice or rapidly freezing water. While they may initially appear to be distressed, they most often are not.
Just like humans, animals behave differently when the seasons and temperatures change. It is important to not assume the worst when observing a wildlife situation. It is easy to mistake unusual animal behaviors for an animal in distress. Stop and closely observe before attempting to find help.
“Trumpeter swans are a classic example of this,” said Erica Hoaglund, central region nongame wildlife specialist. “People see them this time of year resting on frozen water or swimming about in small pockets of open water within ice. Observers assume they’re trapped when most of the time they’re not and move on in either a few days or a few weeks. It usually is not the emergency it can first appear to be.”
The DNR provides these reminders to people concerned about the fate of swans or other waterfowl they see in or near water during the early parts of winter.
Often birds that seem trapped in ice or in a shrinking area of open water are fine and not trapped. When the weather is cold, animals move around less, just like people, and observers are often not used to seeing them inactive or alone.
On the rare occasion an animal is actually in distress, it is often physically impossible to reach them safely across thin ice and open, frigid water. Frequently in these situations, the bird or animal has been unable to leave the area for some underlying reason such as illness or injury and it may be impossible to rehabilitate the animal even after its rescue. Do not risk a human life to save a wild animal.
In the case of trumpeter swans in Minnesota, the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program is happy to report that after years of hard work and restoration efforts, the trumpeter swan population in the state is now stable and large enough that natural mortality is not cause for alarm.
Animals that die outside in the winter are an important part of the food chain. Their carcasses will provide crucial winter food sources to a wide range of wildlife, including invertebrates, mice and even bald eagles.