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Winter Lodging

December 4, 2005

The bees are all tucked in for the winter, and now, after a week-and-a-half-long ordeal that tested our wits and our resolve, the swans are tucked in as well. The bees were so much easier.

We've known ever since these swans came to live on our pond that we would have to do something with them for the winter. It's not the cold that's a problem. Our friend at the feed store who has swans leaves his outside year 'round because his pond does not freeze. And that's the key, you must have open water for them. Our pond DOES freeze, despite its depth and the five springs that feed it. You can skate on it, or ice fish on it as one person we know does.

So Bill (our neighbor, who got us involved with these birds) had said that we would need to build a little house for the swans to winter in. At their previous home, there was a small horse barn and the two (since baby had not yet joined the family) were ushered into a stall for winters past.

Well the summer turned into the fall and Bill kept busy with his landscaping business while I kept busy manipulating ones and zeros. We built nothing. So we decided to use the "barn," a two-level outbuilding next to our house, but some distance from the pond.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving was a pretty nice day, sunny and mild. Bill brought over a couple twelve-foot lengths of pig fence and four bales of straw and I rigged up a pen in the upper barn. The building is built into a slope, so each level is accessible at grade. Ready for the swans, now how to get them in there?

We figured we had another couple of weeks to work that out, with the warm fall we'd been having. The swans would want to stay out on the pond as long as possible, so until it started to freeze over we'd leave them out.

I spent Thanksgiving week in Chicago while Janice stayed at the farm. It got very cold by Thanksgiving day, and on the day after, Janice calls to report that large sheets of ice have begun to form on the pond, preventing the swans from getting to the beach where they normally feed. She takes the feed to them, where they have some open water near the northwest end of the pond. She spends some time swinging an axe to break up the ice. We've been caught off guard.

Saturday after Thanksgiving I'm still in Chicago, and Janice has her whole family over for lunch and to help chop ice. But a warming trend is on the way so we get a bit of a reprieve. I'm back at the farm by Sunday evening.

Sunday was a mild day and by Monday morning the ice has all melted. The swans are loving the great expanse of open water again. Bill shows up with a large fishing net and a 40-foot length of plastic snow fence. As you may recall from the first swan adventure, you must get them out of the water to capture them, but we have no real plan. This pond is four or five times the size of the one we rescued them from. How will we get them out?

I try positive thinking, and tell Bill I'm going to shake their feed bowl at them and they'll just follow me right up the grass to the barn. Yep. The swans are more skittish than they've been in the past, for some reason, and they will barely venture onto the beach to eat. They're certainly not going to follow me anywhere.

Perhaps it was the three months of almost daily kayaking that made me forget how ineffective I was with it when we caught them the first time. Somehow, I get the notion that I can paddle up and drop the net over one of them. But how will I paddle and handle the net? Let's just get crazy and put two of us in a one-person kayak.

Janice squeezes in front of me and holds the net while I paddle. We actually get pretty close to Spaulding (the baby, now as big as his parents) a couple of times. He squawks and paddles furiously to avoid us, but we're gaining on him. As Janice reaches out with the net, Spaulding suddenly remembers he has wings. Even though the flight feathers have been clipped he still has enough wing area to flap-water-walk rapidly away. After two attempts I admit defeat and paddle for shore, where Bill tries to suppress guffaws. Thankfully he's not a man to say "I told you so."

We decide at this point to take a passive approach. The weather is so nice we figure we have a few more days. We erect a small corral on the beach using the snow fence. We leave a four-foot opening on one side, with enough leftover fence to close it off. Place water tub and feed dish inside and eventually the swans will wander in to eat. Then we'll have them cornered.

We all retreat inside and I keep one eye on the beach as I work, waiting for that perfect moment when they're all in the corral, then to run out and close it up with them inside it. Two more days of this and the swans still will only go as far as the corral entrance. Each night we take the feed bowl into the barn. Don't want the swans coming up onto the beach at night when the coyotes are on the prowl.

Meanwhile it's been getting colder each day. Thursday we wake to find snow on the ground and slushy ice on the pond. The swans are able to swim through the slush with some effort and they come right to the beach when we go out there with feed. Can't coax them out of the water, though. So wary.

I squat at the edge and toss handfuls of feed to them. I watch as they dip their heads into the slush to eat and drink. I think I can just reach out and grab one of them by the neck. The water is only a foot deep and if I must step into it to pick up the swan, it seems a small thing to have to do.

I wait for my moment. Ziggy, the big male, is closest. His head dips into the slush. I lunge, charging into the shallow water. They're all too fast for me and they scatter quickly. Ziggy is almost in reach. I throw myself at him but he is gone and I am now on my knees in freezing water. I'm soaked to the waist from the splashing and falling forward. Man, that water is cold! I hurry inside to strip and dry off, but the beach is about 300 feet from the house. It's all I can do to get my boots off once I'm inside. I'm done for the day, we need a plan B.

So plan B is, rig up a pump that will circulate enough water to keep a sizeable area from freezing, then leave the damn swans out all winter. Ungrateful birds. Don't they know we're trying to help? I want so much for this plan to work that I convince myself it can. I even get corroboration from a local pond builder, who says moving water won't freeze (but he's never attempted anything like this). I do some research on the web but most of what's available is for aeration, not freeze protection. Still, I think we'll try it on Saturday.

Friday morning the situation is even more dire. It's cold, in the 20s, and the pond is almost completely frozen over. There is a ten- or fifteen-foot oval on the north side of the pond where the swans are hanging out. It appears their motion and body heat has left this small area unfrozen.

The ice is thin. I jab at it from the small boat dock next to the beach and cause a wet crack to appear all the way across the pond. I put the kayak in the water and try to make like an icebreaker. The ice is not THAT thin, I discover. Janice suggests we use the paddleboat so we can both work at it. I guess I'm thinking that if I can open up a channel in the ice from the beach to the swans, they'll swim over to eat. Anyway, I drag the paddleboat out of the lower barn and over to the beach.

Suddenly Bill has appeared, followed by his wife Diane. They're both dressed for serious outdoor work in insulated coveralls. I tell Bill about plan B and he quickly dismisses it. He doesn't think moving the surface water will be enough to prevent freezing. He wants to stick with plan A; catch them and put them in the barn.

Bill and Diane take handfuls of feed and the net over to the side where the swans are. Janice and I set out in the paddleboat and start chopping ice with a pick axe. Diane sits on the bank and tosses feed while Bill looks for an opportunity to use the net.

After a while we realize there's just too much ice, and by now Bill has rigged a twelve-foot pole onto the net to extend his reach. Janice and I are taking the paddleboat to shore when Bill tries to net one of the swans. They jump up onto the ice and start walking away from the open water. The thin ice creaks under their slight weight and in some places they break through and are in the water again, struggling to climb back onto the ice. Could this get any worse?

Bill disappears briefly, then returns with a large spool of heavy nylon rope, the kind you'd use for a boat anchor. This reminds me of Janice's String Theory, which was unsuccessful in the original swan rescue. It has a chance of succeeding this time, however, because we have a solid surface to drag it over. And, it's a much thicker cord.

I grab one end and start walking around the pond to the other side. There's plenty of rope and soon Bill and I are advancing on either side of the pond, dragging the rope across the ice. We catch up to the swans and wiggle the rope up and down to coax them out at the other end. Janice is hiding in the creekbed on the west end, but the swans know she's there and before she can make a move, they take off across the pond ice and head out to the middle. I'm ready to ask Bill if he knows anyone with a helicopter.

Bill just keeps working that rope and we move back across the ice and coax the swans over to the beach. Janice is there with feed and asks me to pass the net to her. I do, and then crouch behind the snow fence corral so as not to spook the birds. She sees an opportunity and swings the net, but again the swans are too swift. She steps into the water after them and is soaked to the shins. Inside she goes to dry off.

I'm getting fatigued, but Bill is relentless with the rope. He and Diane continue to work their way around the pond. Ziggy has separated himself from Odette and Spaulding. Bill and Diane herd Odette and Spaulding toward the west end. I follow with net in hand. They get them up onto the bank and I move in quickly, pushing the net well out in front of me to prevent them from dashing back to the pond. Odette gets away and heads out over the ice but I've sort of gotten the net over Spaulding. He tries to run but gets his wings caught in the rope. I have him.

Gently, Diane and I untangle the rope from his wings as I hold his neck. I scoop him up with my right arm, left hand holding his neck, and start walking to the barn. It's a long walk. I have to stop and squat halfway there to catch my breath. Finally I let go of his neck and wrap both arms around him. He stays calm the whole way, neck extended parallel to the ground. In the barn he goes. "Well Spaulding," I tell him, "at least you won't get eaten by coyotes this winter." His parents I'm not so sure about.

I'm exhausted, breathing heavily from the exertion, as I walk back to the west end of the pond to retrieve the net. Bill and Diane have continued herding Ziggy and Odette with the rope. I'm not paying any attention.

By the time I'm walking back, dragging the net with one hand, I see that Bill and Diane are at the beach, and quite close together. I can't see the swans. As I approach I realize they have gotten them clear away from the pond and headed toward the house. They must be concerned about the baby; they're looking for him.

I suggest we switch from the rope to the snow fence at this point, so Diane and I quickly pull it free of the fiberglass poles that support it. Bill grabs the other end and we slowly walk the swans up to the house. We have them on the patio when Janice starts to open the back door. She's stunned to see the swans just ten feet away. She joins us on the fence and we have them surrounded. The swans have given up. We've worn them down. They sit on the patio and wait calmly as I take first Ziggy, then Odette to the barn to rejoin their cygnet.

Ross Thompson

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