Crouched low in a floating hunting blind, shotgun in hand, Jim Gowen heard the swans coming. Their raucous, trumpeting call is unmistakable.
It was midmorning on a bright, late November day on Horseshoe Lake. Gowen, a licensed waterfowl hunter, knew that the rare and enormous white migratory birds were trumpeter swans, a formerly endangered species making a comeback in Illinois. They are fully protected under federal and state law.
But to his shock and dismay, hunters in a nearby floating blind on Horseshoe Lake fired at the huge birds, dropping one of them.
"I was shouting for them to stop shooting," said Gowen, who is the site supervisor at Horseshoe Lake State Park near Granite City and was on a day off.
"It was disheartening."
But the hunters were too far off to hear or were too excited by the sight of the swans. The illegal shooting occurred Nov. 24 and was followed by a second shooting the next Sunday, Dec. 1, when four trumpeters were shot. Three died immediately and a fourth died days later.
Other hunters at the scene notified conservation officers who soon came to the lake.
The swan that Gowen saw shot was euthanized 10 days later when emergency treatment failed at an animal rehabilitation center.
Sgt. Eric Manker, a conservation officer with the Department of Natural Resources, said he has completed an investigation of the shootings, which involved seven hunters, and forwarded it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in St. Peters, Mo., for prosecution.
"This is very serious and that's why I had it carefully investigated," Manker said.
The hunters could not be named because charges have not been filed.
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The reason given by the hunters on both occasions for shooting the protected swans was that the shooters thought they were snow geese, which also have white feathers.
But this was questioned by Manker and Conservation Officer Donald Schachner, who helped question the suspects.
"There is no way to mistake a swan for a snow goose. A trumpeter swan has a wingspan of 7 feet," Manker said. "Snow geese are much, much smaller."
Actually, according to several websites, a male trumpeter swan's wingspan may reach 8 feet, more than a bald eagle. The weight of an adult trumpeter swan can reach 35 pounds or more, making it the heaviest waterfowl on earth.
In comparison, the greater snow goose, common to the Mississippi Flyway, has a wingspan that reaches 5 and 1/2 feet and may weigh up to 10 pounds.
Manker said about 350 trumpeter swans are thought to exist or travel through Illinois, migrating from southern Canada and Alaska where they number in the thousands. Some may overwinter in Illinois, while others travel to vast wetlands in Arkansas and other Southern states.
Schachner, agreed that trumpeter swans despite having the same coloration, would be difficult to mistake for snow geese. He said the swan that was wounded during the first shooting was picked up from the water by a conservation officer and taken to the animal center.
"It was gut shot and bleeding. It didn't look too good," he said.
Posters showing the differences between swans and snow geese have been posted at the lake.
Gowen, the site supervisor who spends his work days at the lake and has seen the swans on numerous occasions, said about the first shooting, "I don't want to affect the criminal case, but I will say this; it was 10:20 a.m. and the sun was out. It wasn't like it was early in the morning and it was foggy. It's hard to believe they could have mistaken them for geese."
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at email@example.com or 239-2625.