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Pagosans rally to save swan

While returning home from a meeting early last week, Stan and Bert Counsell spotted a loose dog running perilously close to U.S. 160 near Pinon Lake. They stopped in hope of finding the animal’s owner, but instead discovered a young swan approaching certain starvation ... by human sway.

As Bert explained it, a large unidentified family had been hand-feeding a locally-renowned bevy of trumpeter swans — this year including two adults and four cygnets — when the Counsells asked about the dog.

Apparently, no one among the family knew of the dog or its owner, but all expressed concern over what appeared to be “fishing line” protruding from the bill of a juvenile swan. In fact, one individual evidently managed to grasp the material, but failed to pull it free.

With that, Bert moved toward the swans at water’s edge where she could clearly see a portion of what appeared to be landscape netting lodged in the young bird’s mouth.

Turning to Stan, she said, “This guy can’t eat and needs immediate help. Let’s go find some authorities to take care of it.”

Once home, the Counsells called the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Durango, but hung up after several minutes on hold. Stan then e-mailed The SUN, which, in turn, contacted Pat and Rolly Jackson of the St. Francis Sanctuary and Wildlife Rehabilitation in Arboles.

Within minutes, the Jacksons were in route to Pinon Lake with a capture net and large dog carrier. Following a quick stop at a local restaurant for some day-old bread, they parked near the lake’s north shore and placed the capture net on the ground.

While the swans are considered wild, they’ve grown accustomed to human handouts, and the Jacksons easily enticed them to the net with the promise of bread. As the imperiled bird soon wandered into position, the Jacksons quickly seized it, carefully placed it in the carrier and promptly transported it to the Pagosa Veterinary Clinic.

Upon the swan’s arrival, Dr. Thomas Yost examined the fidgety feathered quarry and, with the aid of Vet. Tech. Assistant Whitney Jackson, found that the bird had inadvertently slipped its tongue through the netting, but hadn’t swallowed any of it. Nevertheless, because the material appeared tightly wrapped, Yost snipped a few strands with some small surgical scissors, before safely freeing it from the aggrieved fowl’s inflamed lingua.

Confident that the swan’s tongue would soon recover, Yost customarily administered a de-lousing agent within its plumage, then suggested the Jacksons transport the bird to their sanctuary and rehab center for overnight observation, before release the next day.

By 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Jacksons and their captive cygnet approached Pinon’s western shoreline, adjacent to a tiny island where the adult swans first reared this year’s clutch. There, the once-threatened bird’s entire family lingered, as if waiting for their lost kin’s inevitable return.

At once, the caged swan recognized its trumpeter clan and immediately vocalized a deep-throated alarm. In return, its parents blared a response, as the Jacksons worked to free the young waterfowl from its temporary enclosure. Each time the cygnet called out, one adult or the other quickly replied. Meanwhile, the entire bevy slipped from the island into the tarn, and slowly paddled in the direction of its embittered relative.

Once free from the cage, the liberated youngster paused to stretch its massive wings, then moved to the water for a quick bath. Obviously feeling back at home, it soon joined its parents and three siblings, as the reunited band turned for the center of the pond.

Trumpeter swans have been a familiar site around the Pagosa Lakes area for some time. Former owners of the Pagosa Lodge introduced the original trio (two males and a female), which had clipped wings, rendering them incapable of flight. While they have since perished, today’s swans are believed to be their descendants. Fully able to fly, they have reportedly been seen at Navajo Lake and Stone Lake in northern New Mexico, as well as Zink’s Pond south of Durango.

Just moments after the swan’s release and poignant family reunion, the Jacksons proceeded to Village Lake where they set a Canada Goose free. Following a bout with possible botulism and a five-week recovery at the sanctuary, that bird also took to the water for a thorough bath, then joined a small flock of mallards for the evening feed.

St. Francis is a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center whose primary focus is the care, recovery and release of injured or ailing wild birds. Pat Jackson, as founder and executive director, created the sanctuary on approximately 160 acres in 2005, after realizing a need for local wildlife rehabilitators.

As a licensed rehabilitator by the State of Colorado and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jackson managed to complete a 6,800-square-foot flight aviary in 2008. She and Rolly privately funded the $75,000 enclosure, which provides an area where even the largest raptors can exercise and gain strength before their eventual release back into the wild.

So far this year, Jackson has taken in a total of 78 birds, including 57 songbirds, 11 raptors and 10 waterfowl. Her successful release rate hovers around 68 percent, or nearly double the national rate.

For true avian emergencies, to financially support the sanctuary, or to offer in-kind materials or services, you can reach Pat Jackson and the St. Francis Sanctuary and Wildlife Rehabilitation by calling 946-7452 or 883-2519 (evenings). The sanctuary e-mail address is 2befree@centurytel.net.

chuck@pagosasun.com