DES MOINES, Iowa — The eight bonobos at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa howled Tuesday as they watched two trumpeter swans dip into a lake for the first time. Who can blame them? Not only will the apes get new neighbors, they’ll get a chance to name the rare birds.
“They were very excited,” said scientist Karyl Swartz. “It’s something new in their environment.”
Department of Natural Resources officials released the white swans as part of a restoration project that places birds to nest and produce offspring that are then released into the wild.
Trumpeter swans are America’s largest waterfowl, weighing up to 35 pounds with an 8-foot wingspan. They are Iowa’s only native nesting swan.
Once common across much of the continent, they were hunted for their feathers to near extinction by the late 1800s. The swans now have protected status, and their population has grown with help from nesting projects.
The Great Ape Trust’s grounds include 40 acres of lakes and wetlands, making it a perfect spot for the swans. And the birds will give the bonobos at the trust an interesting distraction.
“They’re going to be curious about what’s going on down here,” Swartz said. “They monitor their environment closely.”
Sophisticated language skills
Bonobos walk on two legs and are the most humanlike in appearance of the great apes. They have sophisticated language skills, a trait they’ll demonstrate when asked to name the swans.
Swartz said they’ll either use a board that has symbols the apes associate with objects or choose names from a list researchers provide. The apes already use the board to communicate with humans to identify things like location, food and color.
Swartz said after observing the swans, the bonobos could pick a name that they think reflects the birds’ behavior. They’ll also get photos of the swans to carry around. She said the apes can recognize gender, with the help of a tag collar around the male swan’s neck.
The bonobos live at the 230-acre research center with other apes, including chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Scientists at the center study ape intelligence and promote conservation of apes in their natural habitats in places like Indonesia and Uganda.
Benjamin Beck, Great Ape Trust’s conservation director, said the research center was looking for ways to help in local wildlife programs. “It ties in so perfectly with so many of our conservation programs around the world,” he said.
Beck said the swans feed on invertebrates like spiders and crickets, but the staff will also give them chicken mash and cracked corn daily.
The nesting pairs can’t fly away, because their primary feathers are clipped.
Ron Andrews, who coordinates the Department of Natural Resources’ trumpeter swan restoration program, said there are 50 pairs in Iowa whose offspring are released into the wild.
The trust’s two swans will start nesting in May and hatching will likely occur in June. By October the offspring will start learning to fly and within a year they’ll be released.
Andrews said the agency has released about 750 swans to the wild since 1995. “The public’s powerful passion propels the project forward,” Andrews said. “We’re excited about the new state we’re at right now.”
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