Swan rescued from Sitka lake but later dies

Tom Hesse
James Poulson

There's little a fire department can't accomplish on a slow afternoon.

On Thursday it was a mission to rescue a juvenile swan that had become stranded on the thin ice of Swan Lake and was too weak to move. The Daily Sitka Sentinal said Sunday the swan had to be euthanized Saturday at The Alaska Raptor Center because the bird's condition had deteriorated too much.

Prior to the rescue, the raptor center had received calls about a dead swan a few yards offshore on the lake, and had sent somebody out to take a look. The ice was too thin to walk on, but from a vantage point on shore the swan showed no signs of life and the decision was made to leave the remains for the eagles, said Jen Cedarleaf, avian rehabilitation coordinator at the raptor center.

"I thought it was dead. It looked totally dead," Cedarleaf said.

Later that afternoon, the raptor center received more calls about the bird. Holley Dennison from the state Department of Fish and Game was at the lake and talking to Cedarleaf on the phone when she saw the swan pick up its head. The raptor center immediately made another trip to investigate.

Cedarleaf said the swan was still motionless when they arrived around 2 p.m. Gulls had gathered around the swan, but were keeping their distance from the stranded bird.

"One of the gulls started walking closer and I said, 'OK, we'll see what happens here,' and as the gull got closer the swan sort of lifted its wing and readjusted itself," Cedarleaf said.

At the signs of life from the marooned swan, Cedarleaf went quickly to the nearby fire hall to see if anything could be done.

Troy Tydingco, head of the department's dive team, was called and a fast survival suit training/swan rescue was scheduled.

"It was a pretty quick little thing," Tydingco said. "We just called it a short training."

Diver Herb McClenahan suited up and waded out to the swan, pulling a small sled on the ice, returning with a reasonably placid young swan.

"Surprisingly, it was fairly calm," Tydingco said. "Herb just picked it up and set it on the sled. It did perk up a little bit when it was getting closer to shore."

Cedarleaf said the Sitka Fire Department volunteers jumped at the opportunity to help.

"That's a part of what makes it so great to live in a town like this," Cedarleaf said. "For them it's just a drill that they were happy to do."

The grounded swan was likely an orphan, Cedarleaf said. The raptor center recovered the body of another swan earlier in the week that they believe to be a parent of the one recovered Thursday.

Cedarleaf said the rescued swan was born this past spring.

Swans spend the migratory cycle of their lives very close to their parents, and because it was orphaned, it didn't know those routes, according to Cedarleaf. Being so young, the bird also didn't know how to care for itself and had grown weak from starvation. The bird likely retreated to the ice for lack of knowing what else to do.

"I think it was just really, really weak from hunger," Cedarleaf said.

When the center got the swan, its body temperature was 93.3 degrees Farenheit -- cold by human standards and frigid for birds, which usually have a body temperature between 104 and 106, Cedarleaf said.

The swan had been warming up in a kennel at the raptor center alongside a raven and across from an eagle that arrived from Juneau on Thursday night's late flight. The bird's body heat had reached a more encouraging 102.3.

Before the swan died, Cedarleaf said they would have to wait for the bird to warm up before feeding it because the act of digesting requires enough energy that feeding the chilled creature before it's appropriately preheated would kill it.

Cedarleaf said at the time that the change in body temperature was encouraging, but they would have to wait until the swan started eating to know what kind of recovery it would make. If it survived, the bird likely would have been sent to a swan center in the Lower 48.



Daily Sitka Sentinel