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Summer 2001 Edition

Swan Family Relocated
by Sue Holloway

an-su2001-swanrescue1.jpg (81393 bytes)I received a call late at night, with a plea for help. A male swan on a pond adjacent to an elder living facility in the nearby town of Guilford, CT would be removed the next day by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The swan had chased a woman who inadvertently came too close to his family of week-old cygnets. The woman, who walked with assistance of a walker, had fallen and hurt herself, requiring emergency stitches.  Management of the facility had to act quickly.  Their first concern: the safety of all residents, with an average age of 83.

My caller, also a resident at the facility, was equally concerned about breaking up the swan family, and the welfare of the male swan.  If removed singly, he might be pinioned, the wing tip removed permanently so the swan could never fly again.

This would guarantee he would not rejoin his family.  It would also cripple him and likely cause painful arthritis.  Meanwhile, the mother swan would have to raise her cygnets without the protection of the watchful male, and without his companionship as her mate.

Was there anything we could do?  The woman’s request began a week-long effort, one of the most intricate and challenging attempts I’d ever experienced, in over seven years of rescuing swans.

By midnight, we had created a team of four volunteer wildlife rescuers – from Fairfield, Stony Creek, Chester, and Madison.  And we had developed a plan, working with members of the Swan Society and Wind Over Wings.

Six thirty the following morning, we arrived on site, to meet with management.   A permit to relocate the family was granted by the DEP by early afternoon.

an-su2001-swanrescue2.jpg (170103 bytes)A Fairfield rehabilitator easily captured the male, who came up on the grass beside her.  The group hoped to place the family on an isolated pond on private property a few towns away, in Killingworth. But unfortunately, the potential site was found to be inadequate, in terms of vegetation needed to sustain a family of swans. While supporters researched another alternate location, the male swan was taken to a rehabilitation facility.

Meanwhile, members of the team attempted to capture female and cygnets. But she was wary, with her mate missing.  And the rocky shoreline made it difficult for two or three people to get into one spot to grab the mother and babies at the same time.

We did not want to split up the mother and babies; there were giant snapping turtles on this large pond, and a single cygnet would become an easy target. Rescue attempts broke down that day.

Three more people assisted the following day. At 6:30 a.m., we stationed the kayaks beyond the entrance to the pond from an inlet and waited, hidden among hummocks of high grasses and viburnum.

A remote control boat was held ready near the main stream. But the mother swan spotted the gathering on the side of the pond and hurried her babies into the backwaters. We waited for hours, foiled again.

On the third day, the permit had expired; something had to be done with the papa swan. An extension period was granted.  But the mother swan did not appear with her babies, and we retreated. When we regrouped that afternoon, we brought a kayak to the side. The plan: to cut her off from the escape inlets, and drive her and the babies back on shore. But when the kayak sped across the pond, it frightened the mother.

She trumpeted, and the babies scattered in five directions, diving under the water and swimming about fifteen feet away. Some hid among hummocks, others continued to try to reach the familiar inlet. The mother, disoriented, flew distractedly. We left the area, so she could regroup her babies. The mother did not come out again until the next afternoon. There were only four babies.

The best scenario at this point seemed to be to stop all further attempts. With the male swan, removing the four primary wing feathers would temporarily limit flight; he could be relocated a significant distance from the family.

an-su2001swanrescue3.jpg (158509 bytes)This was hardly the "happy ending" we had imagined.  All of us felt disheartened.  We had learned it is important to honor the animals’ timing.  Advising us, Hope Douglas of Wind over Wings in Clinton, CT, noted that trying to hurry or otherwise force things fails to honor the "integrity" of the animal.

Three days later, after numerous visits to the swan family, we agreed: one more try.  It had to be a gentle approach, with the swan’s permission.  A resident accompanied Julie Netsch and me, as we moved the mother swan and her babies, together with the papa, to South Cove, estuary of the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook, CT.  Other members of the team joined us for the relocation. Together, we watched, hopeful for their future, as the mama led her babies to the water; the papa, pausing slightly to waggle his tail in thanks.

Adapted from an article published in The Source, Madison, CT. Reprinted by permission of Shore Publishing, Inc., Madison, CT.

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