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The Rescue

June 30, 2005

We're crackling with energy, despite the past 3 arduous hours.

This is a story of swan rescue. The players: Bill (our neighbor, a landscaper), Diane (his wife), Carla (her daughter), Janice, and me. The subjects: papa swan, mama swan, and baby swan (baby swans are called cygnets, probably from the latin name of the Mute Swan, cygnus olor).

First, a little background info about the Mute Swan from our fabulous Reader's Digest Book of North American Birds:

"Originally an inhabitant of Europe and Asia, the mute swan was introduced into the United States in the mid-1800s to grace the ponds of estates and parks. Today, thousands of decendants of those original pairs are living wild, and their numbers continue to multiply."

We've been reading up on swans since this past Sunday when Bill called to ask if he could relocate some swans to our pond (it's 3 acres and spring-fed, some might call it a small lake). Seems a client of Bill's had moved away, leaving his house on the market and his swans in his pond. These are not wild swans. There is a thriving business in selling or renting swans to pond owners (mostly on corporate campuses) to keep away Canada geese.

This pond, being rather much smaller than ours, and created by damming a creek, is muddy and scummed with algae and other strange things. It's just the kind of pond snapping turtles love. One rather large and ugly one had recently killed one of two cygnets this swan pair produced.

Cygnets look like fluffy gray ducks and are about that size, but are flightless until they lose the gray down and grow the white feathers of a mature swan. You can imagine how horrified Bill was to discover this loss. He had gotten quite familiar with the swan family in his frequent visits for lawn maintenance.

Bill being the kind of guy he is, went home, got his gun, and took that turtle out — the better to protect the remaining cygnet. I saw this ex-turtle in the ditch where Bill left it, and its neck was as thick as my wrist. Nasty creatures. I felt no compassion for it.

Unfortunately, this was not the only turtle in the pond. So Bill was determined to rescue the remaining swans, and with the owner's blessing, asked us if we would allow them to live in our pond. We went to see them the day after Bill called, and vowed our support. We all felt time was of the essence.

Tuesday passed and other duties prevented us all from the most important task on our list. Then, today, our long heat wave (a record number of 90-degree days in June, and six inches less rain than we should have so far this year) broke with a thunderstorm late in the day.

As it passed and began to clear, I called Bill to tell him we were ready to rescue the swans. Bill was about 6 miles away, watching hail pound the parking lot of the store he was shopping in (Farm & Fleet, of course). But he agreed to go to the pond the swans were living in to check out the situation. He was not optimistic, since the last storm had made papa swan pretty cranky.

He called back a little while later and said "let's do it" (or words to that effect). He had his eye on another snapper, and had already called Diane and asked her to bring him his gun. We loaded wire cages into our truck, along with some waders, old bedsheets, twine, lettuce, and bread. We had several ideas to try in catching the swans, having spoken to the local park district about how they move their swans seasonally, and having received a reply to a desparate e-mail Janice had sent to a UK swan protection group.

I should point out that these are enormous creatures, if you've never seen them up close. They stand four-feet tall on the ground. Length (beak to tail) 56 to 62 inches. Wingspan about six feet. Adults weigh around 25 pounds. The long neck is very powerful and can land a blow that can break a man's arm. None of this information is useful, however, when you have your arms wrapped around one and its legs are kicking (legs as thick as my thumb, webbed feet as big as my hand), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

We arrive just ahead of Diane. Carla shows up a little bit later. First we try to coax them out of the pond with lettuce and bread. The idea is, get them on dry ground, then get between them and the water; herd them to an enclosed area, then just pick them up and tuck them under your arm like a medium-sized dog. Uh huh.

The bedsheets were my idea, since we didn't have a large fishing net. You know, the kind you see fisherman whirl around their heads and then fling out into the surf with a flourish. I thought if we could get close enough, we could drop the sheet over one and scoop it up without danger of its wings getting entangled in netting, or its powerful beak finding tender flesh.

Bill asks if we have a regular, frame-mounted fishing net like one might stick under a large bass as one pulled it out of the water on the end of a line. He thought if we could scoop the baby out with a net and cage it, the adults would come out of the pond to protect it.

You have to get them out of the pond. In the pond, they rule. And forget about that crazy idea of herding them to shore with your kayak. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

After very limited success getting only the male out of the pond with the food trick, I start talking about going to Farm & Fleet to buy a fish net. Then Bill realizes he has a net back home that might do the trick. We agree to go get his net and my kayak, thinking we could escalate the threat level.

As we are about to get in Bill's truck, Janice, who has managed to position herself at the edge of the pond just feet from the swans, calls out to ask if she should try to throw a sheet over the baby. Bill and I hem and haw, skeptical that this plan will be successful, and by the time Janice makes up her own mind to throw the sheet, the swans have moved away from the edge. She curses us and decides on the spot to act on her instincts.

Bill and I get in the truck and head back for supplies. We get about a mile away and Bill's cellphone rings with that Latin beat I least expect from this Arkansas-born, hard-working, no-nonsense country man. It's Diane. She says Janice has the baby in hand. Well, crap. Guess we men were just in the way. We agree to go ahead and get the kayak, but forego the net, since it was only needed, and would only be big enough, to catch the baby.

As we pull back into the driveway at the rescue site, we see the women have placed the baby in a small wire cage and placed that on top of the big wire cage. Both parents are nosing about the open door of the big cage. Done deal, we think. All that's left is to herd them into the cage.

We grab sheets or the end of a roll of plastic snow fence and Bill, Diane, Janice and I start to close them in. The adult swans separate and I focus on mama swan since she is closest to the cage. I drop the sheet over her and bend down to wrap my arms around her. She's heavier than I expect, and wet on the bottom from that stinky pond. I kind of half lift her as I usher her into the cage, pull off the sheet and swing the cage door closed. Two down, one to go.

Papa swan is still walking around, wings slightly raised, hissing. He's not going to go gently into that good night. Not for another hour or so, anyway. We try to crowd him in and he freaks, starts running for the pond, wings flapping. He's back in the pond. We're back to square one.

Sure glad Bill and I went for the kayak. Now seems to be the perfect time to put it in the water and herd papa swan out. I put in at the shallow end, and I'm poling with my paddle like a gondolier to push myself out of the muddy shallows. This kayak has about an eight-inch draft with me in it. As I push off the mucky bottom the smell of rotting vegetation starts to fill my nostrils and the water gets even more cloudy.

I'm new to kayaking, but I've had the kayak a couple weeks now and have been out on my pond in it almost every day, so I can maneuver the thing. Still, I find I'm no match for a swan with feet the size of salad plates and a buoyouncy that far exceeds that of a nine-foot kayak with my middle-aged ass in it.

I chase him around the pond for a while but he knows he doesn't have to get out of the water to avoid me. I'm no threat. We even try what I called Janice's String Theory, tying twine to the front of the kayak, the other end in her hands. We think we can herd him with this. We get it around him a couple times but he just swims right over it.

Plan D. Get out of the water and everybody just cool down.

I drag the kayak back up to the truck, then we all just hang out on the side of the pond opposite where we have mama and baby caged. After a while, papa gets out of the pond. Carla has been deliberately annoying the captives and they are making sounds. It has his interest. As he pads cautiously toward them, I, at Carla's suggestion, slowly move to the cages and get there well ahead of him. I take the caged baby away from the caged mother. This upsets them both enough to make a little more noise, the baby peeping and mama hissing. Mute swans don't have a lot of sounds, but they hiss and make a sort of nasal clucking/honking squawk when irritated.

The ploy works, and draws papa swan further from the pond. Janice and Diane, on the snow fence, move in behind. Bill rounds the bend with a sheet. I grab another sheet and we move him close to the house, then he makes a break for it. We chase him around the yard, past the gazebo; we're running around like lunatics. He veers into the woods. Diane yells to Bill "don't fall in that creek", and I realize there's a creek in there that I, too, should probably not fall into.

I skirt the edge of the woods and suddenly papa swan lunges up from the creek bank. We're right next to their nest, a three-foot diameter whirl of twigs and branches littered with feathers from the beginnings of the adults' seasonal molt. I also notice a rather abundant quantity of swan droppings scattered about the grass. And I thought goose droppings were big. (But this is just a tease; nobody slips and falls in swan shit. Not today. Not ruling it out of our future as swan stewards, however.)

As papa lunges, not really at me but toward the pond, as I am between him and it, I try to grab him. But his wings are spread and he looks formidable. He slips past me and is back in the water. Crap.

Someone, Bill I think, suggests that we pretend we are leaving. We have two pickup trucks, a van, and a non-distinct GM SUV on site. Everyone moves their vehicles away from the front of the house. I park our small truck halfway down the drive, behind some tall evergreens, flip down the tailgate and sit. I've by now removed the long-sleeved shirt I've been wearing and put on a t-shirt. That's a little better, but it's still pretty warm and humid despite the recent thunderstorm. I suck on a bottle of lemonade and watch the sun as it begins to set. Not much daylight left. What next?

We have now moved caged mama and caged baby into a kind of garage court that's mostly surrounded by brick walls. It's open in the front where you drive the car into the garage, and has a smaller opening on the side. We pull the snow fence across the small opening, then everyone just waits.

We're not sure what our options are if we don't catch the male. Bill says, based on his history with these particular birds, that if we were to go home with mama and baby, expecting to return tomorrow to catch papa, that papa would likely wander off down the creek. He did this once before.

So we wait. It's getting dusky.

Diane has placed caged baby within twenty feet of the pond, I guess thinking that the garage court, being about eighty feet away and up a significant rise, is too far to coax him out. It works. He's out. Bill and I get behind him with our sheets. Diane takes baby back up to the garage court. Papa swan keeps walking. Janice joins us with her workshirt in hand, like a matador's cape. The three of us gently follow him up, up, back, toward the horse corral. We think we might back him up against the rail fence.

He breaks again and half flies across the back yard, wings making a whooping sound. What a powerful animal! We're still chasing him as he slips past us under some low-branched trees toward the pond. Bill shouts "let him go, he's upset." He doesn't go back into the pond this time. We let him calm down, and before long he's walking up and across the drive toward the garage court.

We slowly close in behind. It's touch and go. He stops. We stop. He turns toward us. We stand our ground. He turns again toward his mate and offspring. Little by little we herd him into the corner of the court, behind the cages, and I simply drop my sheet over him, then bend down to pick him up.

He's even heavier than his mate and his feet are flailing, but he doesn't try to open his wings, and his head is no threat even though it is free and swinging about. He snaps once at Bill's rear end but is deflected by a thick wallet.

We fumble with the clips on mama's cage door, amazed and perhaps somewhat in shock that we have finally succeeded. Open the door, set papa in and pull off the sheet, close the door. Done.

We load the two cages into the back of our truck, drape a (wet) sheet over the cage and tie it down, then drive the 6 or 7 miles back to our place at about 20 miles an hour, emergency flashers blinking, with Bill following behind in his full-sized pickup. He'll absorb the impact of any impatient drivers once we get to the road we live on, a two-lane blacktop that is a county highway everyone drives too fast on. At least by now it's after 9 pm and almost fully dark. Less traffic.

We drive up the service road to the small beach of our pond, unload the cages, and open them up. The swans are pretty calm now and they saunter out, happy to have baby join them (after much coaxing to get it to the right end of the cage). We watch as the family slowly paddles away along the edge of the pond, lit by Bill's truck lights. Magnificent.

We are so incredibly happy, yet subdued. Bill and Janice and I stand at the back end of Bill's truck and congratulate ourselves on the best work any of us has done all week. The swans silently slip around the bend into the darkening night.

Ross Thompson

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