Swans in Winter, A Matter of Survival

Mute swans are an invasive species, descended from a few birds introduced in the 1800s as park and estate ornaments.  They have multiplied to the point of being considered a pest for their aggressiveness in driving off native species and their enormous appetites so hard on our water plants.  A swan can put away as much as eight pounds of vegetation, as well as frogs, etc. in a day. Not long ago, I looked out to see the entire marsh channel filled with them, graceful white creatures floating so delicately.  There must have been hundreds.  Next time I looked, they were gone, having swiftly cleaned up the handy food supply, I suppose.

Swans caught in their every shrinking patch of open water.

My pair of swans, which return to my wetland yearly to raise a family, nearly expired of drought last year.  This year they hatched seven fluffy babies and raised at least six of them to flying age. I assumed they had gone off to join the crowd for the winter.  So imagine my surprise to look out and see three of them still floating in a tiny patch of open water with ice closing in all around.

After slipping back to take some pics, I thought the wings of two of them looked odd.  That night, the temperature dropped to -20C, freezing the pond solid. The swans disappeared, quite sensibly I thought, gone to find a more congenial spot. However, I soon received an email from our local wildlife rescuer saying that he had chased two of them along the road about a mile away because they seemed to have injured wings and couldn’t fly.  He failed to catch them because they were otherwise healthy and strong and too fast on their big webbed feet. They vanished into brush far out of reach.

Rescuers, net in hand, tramp off into the cedars to find the swan in distress.

I follow the advice of our locally famous naturalist and stay out of wildlife dramas.  Not so the rescuers. Our local volunteer is afire for helping the sick, injured or threatened, the same fellow who, in the summer, can produce an instant lecture on the desperate importance of saving turtles from the road.  He convinced the police to keep and eye out.  They informed him that they spotted a swan near the village. That was the extent of their aid.  Our rescuer was outraged that neither the police, the fire department or the apparently idle road crew in the road maintenance terminal would help to corral the bird. He resorted to me for help and stopped a county truck on the road, convincing the two women workers inside to join the rescue party. 

Of course we made so much noise crashing through the cedars that the swan ran off.  A meandering search ensued with me wondering why we didn’t just follow the webbed tracks in the snow.  Yet all was not lost.  An intrepid young man from town arrived, their go to expert for remote rescues and kayak heroics.  I got sent home.

Young swan rescued from starvation during the severe drought last summer.

Later, I found out this new tracker did not give up until they actually captured the bird which will now winter at the animal rescue haven.  Other swans also arrived there.  One was taken in by  woman who picked it up at the roadside where it had been hit by a car.  It, unfortunately, did not survive.  Another, struck on the big bridge over the bay, ran out onto the bay ice which was far to thinly frozen for people to step on. So, it stood about, occasionally splashing in a wet puddle, for all to see driving by. The current deep freeze may have by now encouraged someone to risk their neck to bring it in. 

Catching a large, angry swan, injured or not, is no mean feat. They can easily break an arm and stab viciously with their bills.  So kudos to all those intrepid souls who undertake the hardest rescues.  They help make sure my pond has swans again in the spring.







One thought on “Swans in Winter, A Matter of Survival”

  1. The rescuers are to be congratulated for their heroic efforts. All too often, those to whom you made reference refuse to help because they don’t want to be bothered getting involved and use the excuse of “not in our job description” or “insurance concerns”. It’s true – Nature should in most cases be left alone in a world of allowing only the fittest to survive. And, while it was just a Mute Swan – an introduced and invasive species – it is always a breath of fresh air to see folks like yourselves go the distance to save a species in trouble, and not be concerned about a species’ worth. That’s what I like about Sandy Pines – they will devote the same attention to a House Sparrow, a Meadow Vole or a Pigeon as they will a rarity.

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