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Life of a Swan

June 15, 2007

We’re getting overstocked with swans. Either the swan market is soft, or we’re not trying hard enough, or, most likely, we are the ones that are soft. We’ve become attached to the three juveniles that hatched a year ago and they’re still with us.

Now, with more recently hatched cygnets, we’re going to have to figure out something. The male, Ziggy, won’t tolerate last year’s clutch being on the same pond. The juveniles only have the run of the pond while the parents and the new cygnets are kept in the nesting pen. In a few more weeks it will be time to release them and then the juveniles will be a problem.

We got them through the winter, through some bitter cold February days. This time around we let the swans stay on the pond. We spent a weekend last fall constructing a larger pen, half on the shore and half in the pond, at a point close enough to run 200 feet of extension cord from the barn to a small aerator that kept most of the water in the pen from freezing, even on the coldest days. The swans were all very happy to be able to stay outside and in the water.

Trapping them in the new pen was a bit of an ordeal. Late last fall Ziggy started acting aggressively toward the juveniles at feeding time, chasing them away from the feed bowl on the beach. By placing the feed in the pen it was possible to lure the swans in through the wide opening just offshore, then rush into the water with a section of fence to close it up. We caught the parents this way early in the aggression.

The trio, Spyboy, Dana, and Peggy, are quite close and stay together most of the time. Even through Ziggy’s aggression, they have wanted to be near their parents. So they hung around outside the winter pen for the few days we had Ziggy and Odette penned, and finally we let the parents out onto the pond again.

But Ziggy continued to harass them, mainly at feeding time. We developed a routine where Janice or I would get in the kayak and herd the parents away from the shore so the juveniles could eat. We began to worry that we might not be able to pen them all together for the winter as we had planned.

In the wild, swans will chase away their offspring when the cygnets are four months old. They’re fully grown at that age, but their feathers are still a mixture of gray and white and their beaks stay black or dark gray for a year or more. Our three were four months old by the end of September.

At some point, the harassment lessened enough that we decided to at least try to get them all in the pen, figuring if we had to separate them we could divide the pen down the center, parents on one side and juveniles on the other. It was fairly easy to trap the adults again, but the juveniles were far more wary.

With the adults in the pen, we rigged a section of snow fence to pen them on one side so we could open the water entrance for the juveniles. But they felt close enough to their parents being just on the other side of the main fence and were reluctant to come inside the pen. I finally had to wrap the snow fence into a tight circle around Ziggy and Odette, within the pen and well away from the perimeter, to get the juveniles inside. A quick pull on the makeshift drawbridge-style gate I had rigged and they were all in for the winter.

Winter passed without much activity, except for some occasional ice chopping we had to do on the really cold days when the unfrozen area shrank. In late February we noticed the underside of Spyboy’s right wing was all pink. Being the one male of the three juveniles (our best guess, based on relative size and how Ziggy behaves around them) he is the most threatening to Ziggy. We supposed Ziggy had nipped him under the wing. Lately, both parents had been forcing all three juveniles out of the water on occasion. (We called them “time outs.”) The adults were surely feeling the approaching spring mating season.

We managed to back Spyboy up against the fence (after a couple attempts) and pick him up. We put him in the barn and, looking under his wing, found a small wound that seemed to have recently stopped bleeding. We called a large-animal vet that was recommended to us by fellow swankeepers who own the store where we buy swan feed. After I answered a few questions, she told me it sounded minor and just to keep an eye on it.

A couple days later we erected a snow fence pen in front of the barn — same setup as last year — so Spyboy could be outside during the day. The first day he stood out there as the snow lightly fell on him. The second day he (must have) charged the flimsy fence and got out. I saw him standing on the ice in the middle of the pond. Oh well, I thought, he’s coyote bait now. No way I’m walking out on that ice after him.

But it’s late February, the cold, cold days of early February are behind us and the weather is warming toward spring, it seems. The entire water area of the winter pen is unfrozen, as well as about 3 feet beyond the fence. So after a while Spyboy realizes he can get in the open water around the outside of the pen and stay safe. He is never put back inside the pen.

Spring thaw

Mid-March the pond ice is completely melted and migrating ducks have arrived. Hooded mergansers, lesser scaups, ring-necked ducks, northern shovelers, American wigeons, buffleheads, common goldeneye, even a pair of wood ducks. Spyboy peacefully shares the pond with them, and Canada geese, too.

A few days after the first ducks appear we release Dana and Peggy, leaving Ziggy and Odette alone in the winter pen. The plan is to move Z&O directly to the nesting pen where they raised their clutch last year. This will allow the juveniles (and the ducks and geese) to enjoy the pond without fear of being chased by Ziggy.

We want to leave them in the winter pen a little longer, though. There is more water and it is deeper than in the nesting pen, so it will be easier for Z&O to mate in the winter pen. I happen to be looking out the window a couple days after we released Dana and Peggy and I catch Ziggy and Odette in the act. A rare sighting unless you watch for it constantly. Mating only lasts a few seconds as the male climbs up on the back of the female.

Events conspire to prevent us from moving them until the last day of March. I carry Ziggy, then Odette from the winter pen to the nesting pen about a hundred feet away. Two days later Odette has laid her first egg. But it is premature, and she kicks it out of the nest, then abandons the nest itself and builds another nest closer to the water. Some days later we see yet another egg has been laid and then rejected, kicked some distance away and left to rot on the shore. Eventually she lays four (maybe five) more eggs and keeps them all.

Easter weekend we return from a couple days in the city and see only Dana and Peggy on the pond. Ziggy and Odette are in the nesting pen. Where is Spyboy? A bit of searching locates him in the creek behind the pond. I put on the waders and walk upstream toward him. He gets around me and heads back downstream. We play this game a couple more times, with Janice herding from one bank and me in the water. Finally, we back him up against the pond berm and he climbs it to get away from me. Once on top he sees the pond and goes right in.

We later learned that Ziggy had gotten out of the pen (airlifted again? see “Ziggy Takes a Flyer”) and our neighbor had managed to get him back into it when he came over to feed the swans. Ziggy must have used his short stint of freedom to chase Spyboy off the pond. This creek episode makes me wonder if Spyboy was “The Lucky Cygnet” we rescued from the same creek last summer.

The new brood

The first two ’07 cygnets appear on May 31. Fluffy and gray as usual. We have to leave for the city again that night so we’re not around when the third one hatches. We see it the following Monday morning when we feed the swans. We are surprised to see that the third one is a light tan color. I remember something I read in Swan Keeper’s Handbook, so I check it and confirm that the third cygnet is a “Polish Mute” swan, so-called because this melanin-deficient variant of the English Mute was first seen in Poland and thought to be a different species. They have buff-colored feet (instead of black) and will be whiter (how is that possible?) and have a brighter orange beak.

Swan Keeper’s Handbook: “Polish Mute Swans (Cygnus olor ‘immutabilis’) are a leucistic form of Mute Swan. A leucistic animal has a reduced intensity of pigmentation while an albino lacks all pigments... When a female Mute Swan inherits only one melanin-deficient chromosome, she will be a Polish Mute Swan, whereas the male of the same parents will be English Mute.”

Friday of the week we first saw the third cygnet, Janice hurries back to the house after the morning feeding to tell me all three cygnets are out of the pen. Weather was stormy the day before, but we are mystified. Ziggy and Odette are still in the pen, the cygnets just on the other side of the fence, and the juveniles watching with mild alarm from the bank about fifteen feet away.

We grab a couple of nets and as we try to net them we see one of the little buggers pop right through the chain-link fence of the pen. So we know how they got out, but not why. We go inside the pen with the two we netted and put them back in the water with their parents.

During that same day we notice that Ziggy is behaving differently toward the Polish cygnet. He pecks at it and harasses it, causing it to hide from him in the grasses. Odette intervenes occasionally, but only mildly. We have read about parent swans turning against a cygnet sometimes, even drowning it if they have decided that it should not be part of their clutch.

Sensing that Ziggy will not accept this differently-colored cygnet (and knowing his history of aggressive behavior), we make the difficult decision to intervene. I put on the waders and head into the water inside the pen. Odette swims to the left, where Ziggy is. The three cygnets swim to the right. I slowly walk to the side of the pen and all three pop through the fence, outside once again.

I walk in the water on the outside of the pen as the cygnets flee ahead of me, all the way around to the other side. Cornered, one scrambles up the bank while one pops back through the fence. I grab the Polish cygnet as it tries to go through the fence, and Janice gets the one on the bank. She puts it back in the pen, and we take the Polish cygnet up to the house.

Have we done the right thing? We’re both wracked with conflicting feelings. I feel bad that the little cygnet won’t get to grow up with its siblings, yet our intervention may have prevented it from being killed by Ziggy. No matter what, we’ve got both feet in it now. The cygnet is going to require a lot of care, according to our handbook.

The first few days she seems to do well. We set up a kiddie pool in the barn, with an upended rubber tub in the middle that serves as an island. With snow fence wrapped around the outside “Sasha” is safe from predators and prevented from getting into trouble by wandering out of the pool. We take her out and let her walk in the grass. She eats lettuce and softened swan feed pellets (soaked in her drinking water).

In her pool she swims vigorously around the tub island. A ramp fashioned from an unused queen excluder allows her to easily get up on the island when she wants out of the water. She even seems to enjoy being held, and spends many hours sleeping cradled in hands against chest.

The morning of the fifth day, however, something has gone horribly wrong. Janice finds Sasha lying on her back on the island, next to the food dish. She is wet and covered with food, her legs extended straight out, only slightly responsive. We clean her up and dry her off and get her to take some water. After a while she perks up only slightly. Her balance is off and she cannot stand easily. Her head wobbles when she lifts it up. It looks like palsy, or the damage that can be caused by a stroke.

We take her to the vet we had talked to about Spyboy earlier in the year. This vet treats farm animals, including chickens and ducks, but admits to having little experience specifically with swans. But she is the only vet we have nearby that does swans. Her impression is that Sasha is nutritionally deficient. She checks to make sure the bird does not have an impacted crop, and gives her a shot of electrolytes and dextrose as a booster. We buy some “chick starter” at the feed store, a crumbly concoction formulated specially for very young fowl.

Sasha won’t take the chick starter feed dry, but she continues to drink water and we find we can mix the feed into the water and get a pretty good amount of it into her. She also will still eat lettuce, when we can get her to eat. Most of the day she just sleeps.

That night we set her up in a large tub on a bed of straw with a towel on top of the straw, a water dish with feed mixed in, and a small incandescent lamp overhead for heat. This goes at the foot of our bed. Several times through the night we hear her thrash around in the tub as she tries to get her balance. We’re up many times to give her more water, or help her get off her back.

The next day (yesterday) is about the same. We don’t see much improvement. She sleeps long periods and must be encouraged to drink and to eat. Once she starts, though, she continues. So it seems like she’s getting enough food and water. I call the vet again late in the day and she feels that there must be some other problem we don’t know about, or the cygnet would have started to get stronger.

I’m mildly hopeful later in the evening, when I notice that Sasha is managing to get to her water dish and her food dish and eating/drinking from both. Her motor skills are still bad, though, and she often flips onto her back and struggles to right herself. Another night of light sleep, getting up frequently to see if the thrashing we hear requires assistance. Sometimes she struggles and ends upright, then calms down. A few times I find her stuck on her back, feet kicking in the air, making no progress, so I flip her over and stroke her lightly.

At 6 o’clock this morning I found Sasha on her back again, but there was no more struggle. She was still and peaceful. Stiff, but not yet cold. We dug a small hole in the shade of a ring of large, old Viburnum and laid her in it with some wildflowers. Then we covered her with dirt and placed stones on the top.

She lived barely two weeks, and only six days in our care, but she touched our hearts and lives. We’ll remember Sasha.

Ross Thompson

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