By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

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.

Comments (4)
  1. MAJ says:

    Wonderful article about a wonderful woman. I think of her everytime I see swans flying to the Mississippi River. Without her care there would be far fewer. R.I.P.

  2. Dave Seavy says:

    This is a good lesson for those who believe one person (in this case, two people) can’t make a difference. I hope a nice memorial in her honor is erected in that park, to remind people of how dedication and the love of wildlife brings beauty and joy to everyone who visits the park and watches the swans. May she rest in peace.

  3. Danny Chase says:

    we will think of her every time a Swan flys over. us.

  4. Janelle L. Streed says:

    I looked up Sheila today to find a way of contacting her and thanking her for everything she’s done to bring back the Swans back to Minnesota. I’m very saddened to read of her passing. I feel a very special link to Sheila as I too feed the wildlife, up in north-western Minnesota. Because (I believe) of Sheila’s efforts, I’m able to photograph hundreds of these magnificent Trumpeter Swans all winter long. I wanted to thank her, contact her and reach out to her to discuss some of the interesting behaviors I’ve noticed in our own flocks and see if she’d noticed similar things. Argh! What a HUGE loss to not only the Swans but to the rest of us (humans) who love them so much. May you rest in peace knowing the Swans you nurtured are thriving and spreading out across the state by the hundreds. God bless you and yours, Janelle