MONTICELLO, Minn. (WCCO) — There are few places in Minnesota where the raw beauty of wildlife comes so close, so loud. The astonishing sight of hundreds, at times thousands, of trumpeter swans creates a stirring cacophony across the Mississippi River’s frigid waters.
For it is at these waters, during winter months, that people, like so many birds, flock to see the swans attracted to the backyard of Sheila and Jim Lawrence.
But sadly, the woman who many credit with speeding up the swan’s recovery in the state through her volunteer feeding program lost her fight with cancer.
In a December 2009 interview, Sheila softly said, “I love to watch them. It makes my winter very interesting.”
Monticello’s winter attraction never would have materialized had it not been for Sheila feeding countless buckets of shelled corn.
Sheila would simply say, “I just put the food out and let the birds fight it out for themselves.”
Sheila’s feeding corn to wintering waterfowl began a success story few could have imagined.
Husband Jim recalls his wife asking years ago, “wouldn’t it be something if we could have 300 birds out here? And they had no idea that it could even happen.”
In those first years living along the river, the couple counted just two trumpeter swans coming to the spattering of corn. That was back in 1986.
This past winter, Jim counted some 2200 swans feeding outside their door. Sheila’s cancer was making her weak and it fell upon Jim to assume the daily duties.
For the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Sheila’s contribution to the trumpeter swan recovery plan was priceless. Her wintertime feeding is credited for giving the swans improved health going into the spring nesting season.
“Every day, all winter long, Sheila was down there watching over the swans, feeding them,” said Carrol Henderson, the DNR’s supervisor of the non-game wildlife program. “She started with 150 bushels (of corn) a week and this past winter, when she as sick, Jim was feeding about 2,000 pounds of corn a day.”
Initially, the cost of the corn was born entirely by Sheila and Jim. But as the price of corn shot skyward to well over $5 per bushel, it became clear that financial help was needed to defray the program’s cost. There is now a donation container in the small riverside park where people gather to watch the swans.
With Sheila’s passing, many have asked if the feeding can continue. Her husband vows to continue her commitment to the swans — a fitting legacy to this true conservationist.
“One way or another it will get done, as long as I can do stuff. We just have to do it differently,” said Jim.