Winter is upon us, which means droves of people are once again bundling up to enjoy the festive lights and other scenery at Swan Lake Park. The only Tulsans at the park who don't need to layer their clothing for the dropping temperatures are its permanent residents, two nameless trumpeter swans.
"They're native to the northern United States. If you go to Yellowstone [National Park] or to Alaska, you can see them there," said Kevin Doyle, president of the Swan Lake Waterfowl Society. "They're native to that climate, so if anything, this is warm for them."
Trumpeter Swans do migrate south for the winter, but Doyle said Oklahoma is about as far south as they go. The swans on Swan Lake are flightless (one because of injury and one because her flight feathers have been removed to keep her on the lake), but cygnets -- or offspring -- of Swan Lake swans have been released into the wild in Iowa for many years and then tracked by the state's Department of Natural Resources. Doyle said those cygnets have never been found further south than Osage County.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources started a project in 1994 to restore trumpeters to the state. During its first seven years, the project released 269 swans into the wild. In 2005, there were 23 known wild nests in Iowa, and officials said the swan population could soon be self-sustaining. Several similar projects are ongoing in North America, and a group of as many as 700 swans have been observed wintering in Minnesota near a nuclear power plant that keeps the Mississippi River water warm.
That's a huge improvement from earlier years, when the trumpeter swan population was sparse. A nationwide count in the early 1930s showed that only 69 lived in the continental United States, with all of those in Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana.
The female resident of Swan Lake has lived there since birth. She is a cygnet of Nike and Zeus, two trumpeter swans who lived on Swan Lake until they died a few years ago. She is about 4 years old, and is accompanied by a male who is about 3 years old. He was shot down over the Mississippi River and rehabilitated by the Department of Natural Resources in Iowa then relocated to Swan Lake. The two have not produced any cygnets of their own, but Doyle is hopeful they will this year because they have reached maturity.
Before the swans have cygnets of their own, though, members of the Swan Lake Neighborhood Association want to give names to their current swans.
"We're all very familiar with the swans, and everybody has their own names for them," Doyle said. "We're trying to come up with a way for kids, maybe in the schools, to come up names. Maybe we'll have a contest or something like that."
It's not surprising that residents of the Swan Lake neighborhood have become close enough to the swans to call them by name. The lake is a "rallying point" for a very close-knit neighborhood that shares responsibility for feeding the swans, Doyle said, and the swans are very sociable.
"They interact very well. They'll eat out of your hand if you have swan food," he said. "They also know when I'm supposed to be feeding them and I'm not. I live on the lake, and if it's 8am and I've had my coffee and haven't fed them yet, they're looking at you, like, 'Come on, where's my food?'"
The only time trumpeters become aggressive is when they are nesting, Doyle said. Then they are extremely territorial and will defend the nesting area against all intruders. The swans know they are protected by the chain-link fence around the lake, though, and they won't run from barking dogs or people taking pictures. It also helps that the swans can grow to be more than 30 pounds, with a length of 45 inches and a wingspan of 95 inches.
Home Sweet Home
That fence is more than 20 years old now and replacing it is one of several projects for which Swan Lake area residents are raising money. They are hoping to replace it with a wrought-iron-style fence, which would cost about $100,000. After that, they're looking to replace the lake's fountain, which no longer works. Engineers have determined the fountain is beyond repair, and building an identical fountain would cost about $600,000.
So far about $70,000 has been raised through donations by Swan Lake area residents, and donations are being sought from local foundations and businesses.
Earlier this year, a Swan Lake resident donated $20,000 to improve the water quality in the lake.
"[The water quality] is not good, but it's not horrible either. It got to the point where you would have some odor off the water on a hot August day," Doyle said. "For captive waterfowl, you're always concerned about anything where there's added bacteria or anything like that [in the water], but it wasn't to the point where it was a threat or a danger. But improved water quality has to improve the habitat for all the animals out there."
Three aerators, which Doyle described as small, spray-type fountains, were installed in mid-November to circulate the water. There is one visible at each end of the lake and a third underwater in the middle. Micro-organisms that help break down sediment were also added in November, and Doyle said the clarity of the water has already improved. The water quality will be reassessed in the summer to determine if further enhancements are necessary.
The Waterfowl Society would also like to add to its collection of birds on the lake. The lake was once the year-round home to more than 20 species, but the birds were removed so the lake could be improved several years ago, and only the trumpeters were returned.
Many birds fly to Swan Lake on their own and spend time there. But additionally, seven ducks have been deposited in Swan Lake and left there by former owners. Doyle said the Waterfowl Society cares for all the birds on the lake and won't let any go hungry, but he strongly discourages people leaving their pets in the lake.
"You can typically count down the six to eight weeks after Easter," he said. "People get baby ducks for Easter and then want to find a home for them after they get tired of cleaning up the bathroom."
Ideally, the neighborhood would like to get all the Swan Lake improvements completed by 2010, in time to celebrate the park's centennial. Swan Lake Park became one of the City of Tulsa's first parks when it was donated in 1910 by W.P. Moore and Samuel Orcutt, who built the lake in the 1880s.
Doyle stressed that the residents of the Swan Lake area don't want to keep the treasure to themselves, and they feel a responsibility to help maintain the park and keep it beautiful for all of the city's residents.
"It's the jewel of the neighborhood, and we think it's really not just the neighborhood's -- it's this area of town's and it's Tulsa's," he said. "It's fun ... and it's to the lake's benefit that everybody in the city visits the lake and enjoys the lake and the neighbors."
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