Spaulding Gets the Girl
The swans wintered well in the barn. For most of December, they just sat around in the straw, getting up occasionally to eat and drink. We supplemented their usual diet of duck feed with fresh lettuce, since they had no access to grass. It's amazing how many heads of lettuce three mute swans can go through in a week.
On a warm day in late December we let the swans out into a pen I created with plastic snow fence. There's an overhead door on the barn (single garage size) and we just open it up and it doubles the size of the swan pen, half inside and half outside. The swans love getting the fresh air.
This becomes a regular thing, as we find they prefer to be out no matter the weather or temp. It takes us a couple months before we think to bring the remote door opener inside where we can open up the barn for the swans first thing in the morning without going outside. We close them inside after dark, because the flimsy snow fence would be no defense against hungry coyotes.
January 10, I'm sitting at my desk working when I hear the swans honking. Really it's more of a squonk. Remember, these are "mute" swans. When they make a noise, especially one I can hear through the closed windows, I check it out.
I look out through the patio door; I can obliquely see the outside pen. Ziggy and Odette are visible through the green snow fence, even with their white feathers against the white snow. But where is Spaulding? He still has a lot of gray feathers, even though he's as big as Ziggy now. I can't see him in the pen. I step out onto the deck in my house shoes, and can see that Ziggy and Odette are both at the far side of the pen, looking out into the field beyond. And still squonking. Spaulding is clearly NOT in the pen with them.
I rush to the pen and look in the same direction that has Ziggy and Odette riveted. There's Spaulding, running around and flapping his wings in the tallish grasses in front of the apiary. What a goofball! I run after him — in my house shoes in the snow. He heads for the frozen pond, but I manage to overtake him in about a hundred feet, and throw my body over him like a net.
"Bad swan!" I keep saying as I carry him back to the barn. Shooing the other two inside I close the overhead door and inspect the snow fence. It's quickly apparent that a small gap between the bottom of the fence and the ground allowed the grass-foraging Spaulding to get his head under the fence. The lightweight plastic snow fence is supported by fiberglass poles woven in and out of the holes in the fence. It slides easily up and down the poles. All the boy had to do was keep pushing his long neck under the fence and, probably before he realized what was happening, he was outside the pen.
The next day I fasten the fence to the ground in several places, and reinforce the gappy side with pre-fab sections of wooden lattice. No more unauthorized walkabouts for the swans.
The rest of the winter months pass without incident, except for one morning in the middle of February that we wake up to -10F cold. That's real temp., not wind chill; the wind chill brings it down to -20F. I add much straw to the swan pen and fluff it up a lot. The swans don't seem to be overly bothered, but I am damn cold! They do seem to appreciate the freshly fluffed straw.
March thaws clear most of the ice from the pond, but I want to wait to let the swans out. Last year we saw seven species of ducks, numbering in the low hundreds, stop over to dive for fish and rest during their spring migration. I want to see that again, and Ziggy would surely spoil the fun. He tolerates no geese and few ducks on the pond.
By March 25 it's pretty clear the ducks aren't coming, at least not in the numbers they did last year. Time to free the swans. We pull up fiberglass poles and open the snow fence out into an arc that will lead the swans around the side of the barn and point them toward the pond, which they haven't been able to see for more than three months (except for that bad boy, Spaulding).
They aren't quick to move, so Janice shoos them and they start to waddle out. As they round the bend and catch sight of the open water a hundred yards away they start to run and flap their wings, and then ... they ... FLY! Son of a ...! The two adults get a good twenty feet off the ground and stay aloft all the way to the northwest end of the pond. We stand there, jaws agape. We had been told that these swans' wings had been permanently clipped. Guess not!
Spaulding, on the other hand, has just gotten a fresh clip of his flight feathers before the release. So he can only waddle all the way to the pond. This is when the trouble begins, although it's not immediately obvious.
It's Saturday, so we're doing various chores inside and out. After a few hours I meet up with Janice and learn that she has been harassing Ziggy, to get him to leave Spaulding alone. Apparently, he won't let Spaulding stay on the pond. He keeps forcing him off.
We had read that in the wild, the swan parents will force their young out of the family unit as early as four months after they hatch. Swans reach their full size in that time frame, but don't mature for at least a year, and don't mate until they're around three years old. Ziggy and Odette are, of course, old enough to mate and that's what they have in mind. No other swans required!
We're at a loss for what to do. Janice continues to intervene periodically, but it should be a full-time job. As darkness falls we see Spaulding sitting on the east bank of the pond, looking bereft. We hope for a quiet, coyote-free night.
In the morning, Spaulding is still there. Janice goes out to bring him some feed. He walks away along the pond berm, avoiding her. She presses on and soon he has slipped down the steep bank, away from the open water and into a small creek that runs across the north edge of the pond. This seems disastrous from my vantage point in the house, but I respond to Janice's arm-waving beckon and drive the golf cart out onto the berm.
We position ourselves about fifteen feet apart, Spaulding between us down in the creek, and head down the berm. Janice gets to him first, stepping into the stream and trapping him against the north bank of the creek with her body. I scramble up the berm and then race the cart all the way around the pond (the berm is too narrow to turn around on) and out to the field north of the creek, stopping as close as I can to where we'll carry Spaulding up the bank.
I help Janice up the slope as she holds the reasonably calm swan in her arms. Then Spaulding gets his first and only ride in a golf cart, all the way back to the barn. He sticks his neck straight out, as if he's flying.
I rig up an outside pen in front of the barn to replace the snow fence we had already taken down and stowed the day before, but Spaulding sits inside and mopes for the rest of the day. He spends two more weeks in the barn and in the pen outside before we figure out what to do next.
The owner of the feed store where we get swan feed, who also keeps swans, tells us about a guy who lost his male swan last summer to a coyote. His female is lonely and he wants to get her a new mate. We talk to him on the phone a couple times, and finally decide it would be best for Spaulding if we let this man buy him and put him on his two-acre pond with the widow swan.
A few days later, he comes to get Spaulding. We put the swan in a large cage and load it into the back of the man's SUV. We offer to follow him home and help release the swan, then we can bring the cage back. The man accepts, whether or not he realizes our motive is ulterior.
Spaulding's new home turns out to be a beautiful old pond that wraps around a small peninsula. Mature trees grow on three sides. The widow swan, April, is swimming with a couple of Canada geese. We learn these are her buddies. Seems a bit strange for a swan to have such companions. But apparently these geese come back every year to nest. I guess she's just gotten used to them. Perhaps her late mate was not so tolerant.
We release Spaulding at the edge of the pond and he paddles away, followed by April in aggressive wings up, neck coiled posture. She chases him from the main, visible part of the pond. He's gone around the peninsula to the back of the pond. We meet the man's wife and the four of us walk the path around the pond to find Spaulding dipping his head in the water for vegetation. He avoids us by going back to the other end, where he starts to bathe.
April heads toward him again, but drops the aggressive posture as she nears him. He continues to bathe vigorously, splashing water up over his back. After a bit more of this, April approaches him and they rub their necks together, then they paddle off to a tiny island where she wants to nest. Success!
Of course, April will have to wait a couple more years before Spaulding can fulfill her desires. But at least they have each other. A few weeks later, we get a call from the wife. She tells us the two are quite happy together and have even engaged in some trial mating behavior. Atta boy!