Two boys from the Easton, Maryland area display their trophy, a tundra swan hunted in the years before they were federally protected. Image courtesy of C. John Sullivan, ca. 1910.
For thousands of years, two native swan species— tundra and
trumpeter— have migrated from the Arctic to the protected coves of the
Chesapeake Bay. Flying south in white
wedges, their arrival signified sustenance for the Bay’s native tribes and
later, for the colonists who scratched out a living along the Bay’s
tributaries. In the 19th
century, equipped with accurate, inexpensive firearms, hunters harvested more
swans than ever before, shipping birds to Baltimore for fancy suppers. The
snowy white feathers were in high demand in New York and London, where they
were used to decorate women’s hats and made into powder puffs and foamy
slippers. To entice the birds within range, carvers throughout the Chesapeake
crafted huge swan decoys, from crude to elaborate, that mimicked swans feeding,
swimming and preening.
The high demand for swans and ever-more-efficient hunting
techniques took a dramatic toll. The population of the trumpeter and then the
tundra swan began to plummet, and their distinctive calls, once booming in
concert, began to be a rare sound on the Chesapeake’s frozen waterways. It
would take the collaborative effort of Canada and the US to protect them, as
the two countries created legislation that would protect the region’s native
swans in 1918 as part of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. That conservation law,
which also protected bald eagles and barn owls, transformed the trumpeter and
swan population overnight from comestibles to conserved species. Swan was
dropped from restaurant menus, and swan trophy photos, like the one above, became rarities as swans were “shot” with cameras, rather than guns.