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Wildlife rehabilitation center works to save trumpeter swans

Video: Humane Society rescuing lead-poisoned swans

Wildlife care technician Sarah Trudeau and wildlife services manager Alysha Elsby give a juvenile male trumpeter swan some medicine at the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Nugents Corner on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. The swan
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Wildlife care technician Sarah Trudeau and wildlife services manager Alysha Elsby give a juvenile male trumpeter swan some medicine at the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Nugents Corner on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. The swan

At the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on Friday, Dec. 11, Alysha Elsby held open the beak of a female trumpeter swan as Sarah Trudeau pushed a thin tube down the bird’s long throat so they could feed her.

At 13.2 pounds, the swan was about half of what she should weigh.

“The adult is extremely emaciated and we are doing many feedings to help her gain weight,” Elsby said.

The trumpeter swan was among 10 brought from Skagit and Whatcom counties into the center, which is part of the Whatcom Humane Society, in the past week. Eight were suffering from the effects of lead poisoning after ingesting lead shot, one from head trauma after possibly being hit by a vehicle, and one from lead poisoning and head trauma.

“This number has been really high. We weren’t expecting it,” said Elsby, manager of the rehabilitation center, as she and Trudeau cared for the swans. “It’s a heavy swan year this year, unfortunately.”

The center in Nugents Corner has so far received 21 trumpeter swans, which migrate down from Alaska to winter here, for 2015.

After the feeding this Friday afternoon, Trudeau, a wildlife rehabilitator, gave the white swan a shot of medication that would bind with the lead in the bird’s system so the lead could be excreted safely.

Hundreds of trumpeter swans have died, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has been among the agencies and groups working since 2001 to reduce swan deaths and locate sources of toxic lead.

Without the medication, the lead would stay in the swan’s system.

It is deadly to the birds, which are the largest of North America’s native waterfowl, with wing spans of more than six feet.

Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in Washington state for more than 25 years, but biologists believe swans may be reaching shallow underwater areas where spent lead shot is still present.

The swans swallow the lead pellets, which are the size of stones they ingest to help them digest grains.

“Lead can leach into the water and, therefore, into vegetation and soils and they can ingest this as well,” Elsby added.

Hundreds of trumpeter swans have died, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has been among the agencies and groups working since 2001 to reduce swan deaths and locate sources of toxic lead.

The rehabilitation center works with Fish and Wildlife as well as the Northwest Swan Conservation Association to care for injured and orphaned swans.

Swans sickened by lead become weak and emaciated. They can’t keep their heads up.

As the lead poisoning progresses, “their symptoms worsen and they are unable to fly and stand,” Elsby said. “ Eventually, they cannot recover.”

Of the 10 that came into the wildlife center within the week, six were so sick that they either died soon after getting there or had to be euthanized.

“We don’t want them to suffer,” Elsby said.

In the basement of the center, another two trumpeter swans wait for care. (A third, male trumpeter swan was brought in Friday night.)

Next up this Friday afternoon is a male juvenile, which is marked by dusky-gray feathers. Lead poisoning has weakened his immune system, so Elsby gives him an antibiotic pill to combat an infection.

They draw the swan’s blood and put it into a machine, which reads the level of lead in its system within three minutes. That’s better than having to send the sample out and wait a week for results.

“This allows them to get an immediate result, which allows them to better treat the bird,” said Laura Clark, executive director for the Whatcom Humane Society.

As they waited for the result, Elsby explained that the lower the number, the better.

They hoped for anything below 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which was the level of lead toxicity in the swan the last time his blood was tested.

“4.1,” Elsby said, reading the result.

“Aaaah,” they cheered.

“That’s a significant change,” Trudeau said.

(The trumpeter swans that died had high lead levels, meaning, for example, they had more than 65 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in their system.)

The result was good news. In fact, all four trumpeter swans at the center Monday, Dec. 14, were stable and recovering.

They’ll be cared for at the center for a total of six to eight weeks before being released back into the wild, where they’ll be part of the annual swan migration back north in May.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

CALL ABOUT SICK, DEAD SWANS

A hotline has been set up to report dead, sick or injured trumpeter swans in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is continuing the 24-hour hotline as part of the ongoing effort to monitor lead poisoning in the wild birds.

The hotline, which will operate through March, is 360-466-4345, ext. 266.

Don’t touch or pick up the birds, wildlife officials said.

People also may call the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at 360-966-8845 about the swans.

HELP REHAB CENTER

The Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center cares for about 1,400 injured and orphaned native wild animals a year.

Operating seven days a week, its funding comes entirely from private donations.

“The center’s resources have been stretched to the limit this year with so many animals in need coming through the doors,” said Laura Clark, executive director for the humane society.

Its annual operating expenses are about $135,000.

To donate, go to whatcomhumane.org.

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