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Ziggy Takes a Flyer

May, 2006

Normal gestation for mute swans is 34 to 38 days. Odette laid her first egg around April 14. We don’t know when the last egg was laid. It can take up to a week for a swan to lay the usual 4 to 6 eggs. We begin counting the days until the eggs should start to hatch. The earliest would be May 17 or 18.

With relatives in for Mother’s Day, I press my brother-in-law into service to help me dismantle the original pen I constructed at coyote corner, and use that fence to close up the water side of the new pen. We’ve learned from other swan breeders that the best way to protect the young cygnets from predators (like snapping turtles, which we do have in our pond) is to keep them fenced in with both parents for the first month of their lives.

So that is the plan. I’m not sure how we’re going to get Ziggy into the pen. Odette is almost continuously on the nest, so as long as we don’t disturb her we’ll be able to close the pen with her inside. Ziggy turns out to be easily fooled.

We fashion a simple gate where the two lengths of fence meet, then don waders and start driving posts in the water. The pond bottom is mucky and our feet sink in ankle deep with every step. You sure don’t want to lose your balance in stuff like that, so we move slowly, pulling one foot at a time from the muck. It’s like I imagine walking on the moon to be.

All the while, as we drive posts, then haul rolls of chain link out on our shoulders, unroll it and wire it to the posts, Ziggy is patroling within five feet of us. He never attacks, but his posture suggests that he would if we looked at him wrong. He is variously within and outside of the portion of water we are enclosing. When there is but a five-foot gap left to close, my sister moves closer to the nest and Odette. This draws Ziggy to her, ever defensive. With him inside we simply close the gap and wire it up. Trapped.

For four days, anyway. On the fourth day strong winds blow in from the north. It’s very gusty. I look up from my desk when my peripheral vision sees something large and white in the air. Apparently, while spreading his wings in one of his occasional shows of male bravado, Ziggy has been lifted into the air by the wind. Like a harrier jet he rises straight up about fifteen feet, then flaps his wings and flies to the north end of the pond. Argh!

Oh well, if he chooses to be absent when the cygnets hatch there’s little I can do about it. I’m not sure it was his choice, though. He may have been as surprised as I was when he lifted off.

A few days later when I take feed to the pen for Odette I see she’s off the nest, so I go around the side to get a closer look. Ziggy is near, agitated. Outside the pen I walk along the fence to the shore, right up to him, taunting him. As I turn away he comes out of the water menacingly and follows closely behind me. I open the gate and enter the pen and he follows me right in. Trapped again. This time he is in it for the long haul.

The day Ziggy is back in the pen is day 36 since the first egg was laid. Any day now we expect to see swans hatching. But there is no action for another seven days. The first two cygnets hatch on day 43, one more hatches the next day.

Three fluffy little swans. They look more like gray ducklings. Within a day or two Odette has them in the water, paddling around. Already they look too big to have emerged from the six-inch-long eggs. With these three hatched, Odette loses interest in the remaining eggs, of which there are two. We never learn what happened to the other two, but books tell us that swans may kick a bad egg out of the nest. And a swan will instinctively know how many cygnets she can care for. Odette has decided it’s these three.

For the next month, the family of five is content within the confines of the pen. Ziggy is a bit of a challenge to avoid when we go in to give them feed. A distraction is useful, to prevent him charging the person trying to pour feed in the bowl. The cygnets grow quickly. By the time we open up a five-foot gap on the water side of the pen to release them all to the pond the cygnets are as big as full-grown ducks. They're one month old.

They already seem bigger than little Spaulding was when we first brought the swans to the pond. Spaulding, meanwhile, is very happy with his new mate and his own pond.

Ross Thompson

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