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'Swan Lady' legacy lives on: a third of trumpeter swans winter in Monticello

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The cacophony of high-pitched honks, squawks and screeches along the Mississippi River in Monticello each winter is the sound of success for state wildlife officials.

Once thought to be extinct from America's landscape, trumpeter swans were reintroduced to the state by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nearly 30 years ago.

In 1986, the first snow bird showed up on the river right outside Sheila and Jim Lawrence's front door. Sheila Lawrence, later called "The Swan Lady," began feeding the swans. After a few years, hundreds of trumpeter swans flocked to the area.

Seven days a week, Sheila Lawrence waded through a sea of white feathers and black beaks, doling out more than 1,500 pounds of corn from plastic buckets for the next 25 years. Sheila Lawrence died in 2011 after losing her battle with cancer.

Her husband has continued the routine, feeding a crowd of more than 2,000 trumpeter swans -- about a third of Minnesota's population. Besides the free lunch that keeps the birds coming back, the water is warm due to the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant nearby.

Ideally, the swans would spend the winter in warmer climates, but Madeleine Linck, wildlife technician with Three Rivers Park District, told the Star Tribune that the re-established flocks don't have the genetic coding and parental guidance to do that.

In addition to bringing back the state's trumpeter swan population, the feeding has become a major draw of tourists, photographers and nature lovers. WCCO says it's considered the best spot in North America to view trumpeter swans.

The Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Industry is promoting a campaign to raise $20,000 to help Jim Lawrence pay for corn and continue feeding the birds.

A live "Swan Cam" is available to view the birds in their winter home between November and March.

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