Bird's best friend: Carrol Henderson helped save swans. Now, he's turning to songbirds

Carrol Henderson
Carrol Henderson, the Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife supervisor, photographed Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Trumpeter swans had long disappeared from Minnesota when Carrol Henderson arrived in 1986 with a suitcase full of swan eggs.

He'd traveled to Alaska to collect the eggs, then used hot water bottles to warm them on the trip home. "Every three or four hours we'd change the hot water in the Northwest Airlines airplane from their coffee pot," the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official recalled of a mission that became one of the state's great bird successes stories. Trumpeter swans here now number 7,000 and are thriving.

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Henderson has new worries these days. While trumpeter swans are out of the woods, the future's mixed for many of the state's more than 400 species of birds. The region's prairie songbirds are in trouble as farming takes away more of their habitat, said Henderson, a reviewer for this year's North American bird study.

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That study, released Tuesday, shows habitat loss continues to cut into populations of meadowlarks, bobolinks and other nesting grassland birds. "There are new varieties of corn that can survive in a drier environment with a short growing season," Henderson said, "so prairies are being plowed up to grow more corn."

The long-time supervisor of the DNR's non-game wildlife program, Henderson wants to make sure those prairie songbirds don't turn into museum pieces like the last passenger pigeon, which died in 1914, and was then stuffed and flown first class to several zoo appearances.

Planting corn
As a young boy, Carrol Henderson, right, helps his Grandfather Holland plant corn on the family farm in Iowa.
Courtesy Carrol Henderson

Henderson's fascination with wildlife started on the family farm in Iowa when his father showed him a nest of killdeer chicks.

"Black and brown and white cotton balls with little stick legs, just the cutest little things," he remembered. "It was just incredible."

In addition to his conservation work, Henderson, 68, has been an avid hunter since he was 10 years old. He and his brothers and sisters gather every year on the 135-acre family farm for what he calls, "pheasgiving", their version of Thanksgiving. They hunt and dine on the pheasants supported by the farm's habitat.

Henderson, who has a bachelor's degree in zoology from Iowa State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of Georgia, started work at the DNR in 1977 as the first supervisor for the then-new non-game wildlife program. He remembers his budget for the year, which included his salary and money to cover expenses including travel and education, was $25,000.

Carlos Avery wildlife area
Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, near Forest Lake, is a popular area for wildlife viewing and bird watching, Sept. 3, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

In 1981 the budget jumped to $500,000 a year. The year before lawmakers approved the, "chickadee checkoff." The new law allowed state tax payers to donate money to the non-game wildlife program on their income tax form. Since then, public sector revenue for wildlife management in Minnesota has grown and now comes from a variety of sources. The Nongame Wildlife Checkoff raised $900,000 last year but that total has been declining in recent years.

A big increase has come from the Clean Water Land and Legacy amendment, the three eighths of one percent tax voters approved in 2008. Five years later, the DNR says that tax has generated more than a billion dollars for Legacy projects. About one fifth, or $215 million has gone to upgrade parks and trails, restore and protect habitat for wildlife, lakes, rivers and streams.

Swans swimming
Trumpeter swans in Monticello, Minnesota in a 2007 file photo.
Tim Post / MPR News 2007

The successful reintroduction of the trumpeter swan is personal for Henderson.

Most trumpeter swans were long gone in the lower 48 states before Henderson's birth. At 35 pounds, the trumpeter swan is North America's largest waterfowl.

Settlers found them easy targets for the dinner table. "The young ones would be nearly as big as the adults so that represented a lot of meat for a pioneer family," he said.

After his Alaska trip, the birds were incubated, hatched and released. A decade later, they were thriving and breeding.

Collecting swan eggs
In this photograph from 1987, Carrol Henderson collects trumpeter swan eggs from Alaska.
Courtesy Carrol Henderson

Henderson stopped to watch a flock along the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities. One of the birds swam away from the others, walked out of the water and up to Henderson. Henderson did what he says seems to put wild birds at ease: He made small talk.

He took a picture of the band on the trumpeter swan's leg. Back at the office he traced the bird's band number.

"This swan was an egg I had collected in Alaska. We had raised it at Carlos Avery for two years. We released it at the Tamarack National Wildlife Refuge. He was a free flying wild swan. I think he just stopped by to say, 'Hi, dad, and thanks.'"