Black swans are a wonderful adornment to our waterways and bring much pleasure to the people they visit. Watching their graceful movements it’s hard to imagine there could be a darker side to their lives. But of course there is. Like all creatures swans are driven by basic needs. These include the need to dominate territory; the right to mate with a chosen partner; and access to the best food in that territory. Pretty straight forward really – territory, sex and food. Sound like any other species you know?
In my several years of catching and assisting injured and orphaned swans I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff. Following are three short stories about battles that I’ve witnessed in the wild.
Kidnapping Never Pays
The call came mid-afternoon from a woman who said that two adult swans with a couple of cygnets (babies) had just walked into her backyard. From the description I could tell the cygnets were only about two weeks old. Swans fledge at about 6 months of age which meant these cygnets were still tiny.
This event was unusual because the nearest water was over half a kilometre away down a maze of residential streets. Adult swans with cygnets will sometimes bolt into suburbia if they encounter a serious threat on the water. I wondered if something had panicked this family.
Obviously the swans couldn’t remain in the callers’ garden therefore the simplest solution was to walk the birds back to the closest waterway. I set about gathered the troops. Soon several bemused adults and excited kids, each carrying a net or a garden rake, set off to gently guide the family back to the water. Two streets and a laneway later we arrived at the edge of a large, central Gold Coast lake. No other swans were visible in the immediate vicinity. We walked the family to the water’s edge. They entered, albeit rather warily.
So far, so good.
This tranquil scene did not last long. From far across the lake I saw the unmistakable outline of two adult swans with three cygnets about the same age as our group. They’d spotted our family and were making a beeline, flat out, in our direction. It was clear the two adults meant business. The aggressive male didn’t even wait to swim the half kilometre (600 yards) over to us. Instead he took to the air and came in hard.
This was not good. Dominant swans with young will drive off and even kill adult swans that invade their territory – then they murder any offspring. It’s all part of nature’s plan to ensure that only the strongest survive to breed. Our family had already swum 20 meters (70ft) from shore and were beyond help. I held my breath.
The aggressive male hit the water and went straight for the nearest of our adults. The bird scrambled and took to the air with the aggressor in hot pursuit. Moments later the dominant female arrived on the scene – her three cygnets beating the water to froth in a frantic attempt to match their mother’s blistering pace. She went for our remaining adult, pursuing and biting it relentlessly until it too took to the air, leaving the two cygnets unprotected. This was a very bad situation indeed. I felt sick. It was only a matter of time before the dominant adults returned and assigned our two little ones to their fate.
Having chased away the parents the dominant adults did return and set about regrouping their own family. Our two newly orphaned cygnets were confused. They didn’t know what to make of this and so they swam directly towards the aggressive family. Big mistake! I watched with my heart in my mouth, waiting for the inevitable massacre. But it never came. Instead of a swift attack and drowning, something rather remarkable happened. The aggressive family accepted the two orphans into their group. This was accompanied by much neck bobbing and trumpeting; all signs of a happy swan reunion. Moments later all seven commenced the long swim back to the other side of the lake.
What the heck was going on?
A conversation with a local residents shed light on one possibility. He seemed to remember the aggressive family having five cygnets originally. Was it possible that our two adults were kidnappers? Had they snaffled two cygnets while their parents were occupied? It was beginning to look that way. This would explain why they’d left the water in a hurry and headed into suburbia, aware they’d get a savage beating if caught with someone else’s kids.
There was also another possibility. The aggressive adults might have made an instant decision to adopt. Swans are able to recognise other swans with similar genes – distant reli’s so to speak. Sometimes they will adopt young cygnets, especially if they share a genetic link.
In this case I lean towards the first theory – that the young had been kidnapped. Either way it was a great relief to see a happy outcome and all cygnets in the care of powerful parents.
The Long March
The woman on the end of the phone was nearly hysterical. She cried, ‘they’ve just crossed Ashmore Road. It’s peak hour traffic and school’s coming out’.
Ashmore is a very busy road. ‘What’s just crossed’, I asked.
‘A family of swans’, she said.
That got my attention. Parent swans with two very young cygnets, crossing a busy road in peak hour, is recipe for disaster. The fact they’d even made it across was a huge achievement, largely due to the caller having slowed traffic long enough for the birds to get to the other side.
I wondered what could have driven them to attempt something so risky. Parent birds don’t undertake insane journey’s without a very good reason. The Botanic Gardens was only a few hundred metres away. It was likely they’d all come from there. But why leave the beautiful lakes and tranquil gardens?
I jumped in my car and began a mad dash towards Ashmore Road – about 20 minutes away.
The birds were last seen entering a local shopping centre car park. I asked the caller to go there immediately and try to prevent them from leaving. Then I phoned the groundsman at the Botanic Gardens. I described the swans. He knew them well. In fact he’d seen the family less than an hour before sitting quietly by the water’s edge. He went to check. They were gone.
The woman called back and said she couldn’t find the swans anywhere in the car park. Only seconds later another caller reported that a family of swans had been seen waddling, at speed, past the local school, much to the delight of pupils. Then a third caller reported a family of swans making their way through building works at the local hospital. It was all action!
The crazy thing is that so far only the first caller had actually seen the birds. They were moving so fast that everyone else was getting second hand reports. It just shows how rapidly the rescue system can kick into action when a family of big birds is in trouble. Minutes later a local shop keeper called to say that a customer had seen a group of swans charging past his front door.
I was still 10 minutes away and now four different callers were out combing the area, trying to catch up with the birds.
I guessed the swans would be heading for the safety of water. But the nearest waterway was still more than a kilometre (half a mile) from their last position. They couldn’t possibly see it, so how would they find it? To complicate matters the waterway was on the other side of a big grassy oval that was used as a designated dog ‘off leash’ area. Dogs are a huge threat to swans on land – especially adult swans trying to protect helpless cygnets. The family would have to cross the park before they’d reach safety.
Their chosen route would see them cover nearly two kilometres (one mile) through a dense residential area; across a busy four lane road; into a shopping centre; past a school and through a huge building site. Finally, they were about to cross an oval with roaming dogs. The odds were against them, but they’d made it this far, so they still had a chance.
I put more questions to my contact at the Botanic Gardens, trying to understand why the family had left so quickly on such a perilous journey. It turned out that an hour earlier he remembered seeing a previously unknown family of swans entering the Gardens from an adjacent river. The new arrivals must have presented a serious threat to our resident family. Swans are calm and graceful but they can be brutal in fights over territory – especially when a tranquil lake with abundant food is the prize. There simply wasn’t room in that small lake for two families of swans. One had to go. Apparently our family made an instant decision to flee, rather than stay and battle it out.
I never even got a glimpse of those swans. Despite receiving constant updates on their progress they completely eluded me. By the time I arrived the family had covered two kilometres of dangerous territory on foot, via the shortest route possible, in record time and had made it to the safety of water. The last report I heard came from dog walkers who, minutes before, had seen two adult swans with two cygnets enter the canal on the far side of the park and swim off downstream. All appeared to be safe and well.
What fascinated me was not so much the speed they’d maintained, running for their lives with two tiny cygnets in tow, but the fact they knew exactly where they were going. Not a bad effort!
Child Abuse – swan style
This final story is unfolding as I write. It concerns a pair of swans that live on a very small lake. They have five cygnets, all three months old, meaning they’re a little over half grown.
For all five to have survived this long is quite an achievement because our local lakes and waterways are inhabited by eels. A mature eel can reach well over a meter (3ft3in) in length and be as thick as a man’s arm. I estimate that eels catch and devour about 80% of cygnets before they reach four weeks of age. It’s even worse for ducks. They lose about 95% of their ducklings – mostly to eels; but also to crows and gulls. This is nature’s way of keeping bird numbers in check, but it ain’t pretty to watch.
The problem for these five cygnets is not eels. They’ve grown enough that eels are no longer a threat. Their problem is caused by their own parents! That’s because their parents have started to nest again.
The natural, instinctive behaviour of black swans is to attack and drive off their cygnets as soon as they’ve fledged; which happens at about 5 – 6 months of age. The parents do this to reclaim their territory and start a new family. If conditions are right they might nest again immediately.
No doubt this Jekyll and Hyde transformation from being fiercely protective one minute, to becoming determined aggressors the next, comes as a very rude shock to their newly fledged young. But parents view mature offspring as competition. This means they have to go! If the young don’t leave the parents may even kill them. Several hot pursuits and a few good biting’s are usually enough to convince the young birds they are no longer welcome. They respond by taking to the air to look for safer waterways and hopefully a mate. Overall it’s a good system, albeit a bit harsh. The newly hatched cygnets in happier days
The parents of these five cygnets have started mating and rebuilding the family nest. However, this is all happening far too soon. The cygnets are only 3 months old. It will be another two months before they mature and develop full plumage, allowing them to take to the air and leave the territory. In the meantime their parents have already started attacking and trying to drive them off. The attacks are becoming more frequent and aggressive. A three month old cygnet is defenceless against a fully grown swan.
Their only refuge is to hide up a small feeder creek that runs into the lake. There’s no food in that creek and the water is only millimetres deep. It’s also quite polluted. Every time the cygnets venture out the creek to feed in the lake the male attacks and they’re driven back.
The obvious solution would be to catch and relocate the cygnets however the law doesn’t allow that. The government agency responsible says that birds cannot be relocated and must not be interfered with unless they are injured. The law is quite inflexible on this point; so inflexible that, as a rescuer, I’m not even permitted to relocate them to a small adjoining lake which is only 15 meters (50ft) from their lake. This law helps to ensure that wildlife is left to resolve their squabbles. It also prevents well-meaning people from interfering in situations where the creatures are perfectly capable of working things out according to nature’s laws. However the complete lack of flexibility is a concern in cases like this where serious injury or death is inevitable.
The situation was creating an enormous dilemma for me and the dozens of local residents who were having to stand by and ‘let nature take its course’ – meaning watch their beloved cygnets get injured before any action could be taken. Everyone was feeling very frustrated. I had to find a lawful solution to the problem, and quickly.
The five cygnets had been under attack for about two weeks. All had lost feathers from their back after repeated pecking’s by their father. The injuries were not serious – yet.
Two days later I felt there was sufficient justification to act. I caught all five cygnets and took them straight to hospital. A thorough vet check revealed that feather loss was not to their primary feathers. That would have been serious because they are essential for flight. After recording weights and tag numbers the cygnets were cleared to go back to the lake.
Clearly it wasn’t in their best interest to release them into the polluted feeder stream where they’d been hiding. Instead I carried them a short distance around the perimeter of the lake to a grassy area about 50 meters from where their aggressive father was patrolling. As it happened this was also the closest point to the adjacent small lake where they could find immediate refuge, if they chose. Upon release all five bolted from the transport box in just the right direction – towards the adjacent lake. They covered the several meters under their own steam and dived into the waters of their new safe haven.
This was a wonderful outcome. It was such a joy to see these young birds, safe and stress free, feeding voraciously on the abundant weed growth on the lake floor. Needless to say the local residents were also relieved and much delighted.
I remember that an ex-Australian prime minister once said, ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy’. I suspect he’d had dealings with swans. Two days later I received a call telling me the cygnets had walked back up to the main lake and were again being attacked by their parents. This was what we’d feared. There was nothing I could do to help them immediately because it was already 6pm and getting dark. Things would settle and they’d just have to tough it out for the night.
If the previous evenings’ phone call was disappointing the one I received the following morning was a delight. The cygnets were back on their own small lake. They’d found their way home. This is very exciting because now we know if they wander into trouble again, as they will surely do, they can get themselves back to safety.
Those five cygnets matured and have since flown away to find and establish their own territories. However, the problem with their parents’ early breeding has not resolved and has affected subsequent broods. I don’t know why it’s happening but suspect that a hormonal issue might be causing the female to come into heat too early, triggering mating behaviour and aggression towards sub-adult cygnets still in their care.
I’ve seen the same behaviour, on occasions, with other pairs. Possible explanations include toxins and pollutants in their habitat causing disruption to their hormonal cycle. Being fed too much bread might be having a similar effect and leading to early mating and aggressive behaviour (bread is not good for any bird).
I also have concerns about cygnets in long term care that are fed too much chick starter, a product high in soy protein. Soy is highly estrogenic and a known endocrine (glandular) disrupter. I believe this can lead to hormonal problems and may result in aberrant behaviour when swans they mature. On this last point my precautionary advice to all carers is … NEVER feed products that contain soy meal to a bird.