June is early summer on England’s southern coast. A time when spring’s lust for life culminates in the fruiting of plants large and small, the baby steps of tentative feet, the hungry clamour of gaping bills, and the whirring of wings freshly unwrapped from pupae. It’s a time for spring-sown wild oats to come into flower. It is a time of love, and a time of loss. A time for paternity and maternity, qualities most gracefully exhibited by Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) that make their home in the reed beds beside English lakes. Parenting, as none better than dad and mom know, is no child’s play. And the challenges, it appears, are harder when you’re a swan.
Experts inform us that swans live in close-knit nuclear family units, and parents may spend over a week in search of a missing cygnet. It is one such heart-tugging story that Dr Arun Kishore relates for The Green Ogre in this evocative photo-essay. We thank him for it, and for sharing the wisdom that male swans are called cobs and females pens. It takes some practice to tell the sexes apart but when they are seen together, the untrained birder might wish to note that the larger bird with the longer neck, larger webbed feet and the black ‘berry’ above the bill is usually the cob.
I live in a small seaside town on the southern coast of England. The housing estate I live on has a park in one corner, with a walkway that circumvents the estate and passes by a small lake. The lake is bordered with reeds and is frequented by a pair of Mute Swans, a few Mallard ducks, and a pair of Eurasian Coots.
Walking along this path one evening, I came upon the lovely pair of Mute Swans — a cob gliding over the water gracefully and then waddling over to the pen, which sat on a nest fairly close to the bank.
The pen sat preening herself oblivious to us strollers. I edged closer to take a video of this action.
In the course of preening herself, she stood and to my delight, I spotted four blue-grey eggs in the nest.
That was enough for me to want to return frequently to check on their progress. And then there were only three a couple of days later! I looked anxiously for the ‘ugly duckling’.
And found that I was a band of searchers – the pen and cob sailed around the lake pecking at reeds.
At one point it seemed to me, that the whole population of the lake was searching for this cygnet.
I watched as the pen conferred with a Mallard duck as though to ask, ‘Have you seen my baby?’
Spotting me, the cob waddled close to the fence where I stood and with bowed head, seemed to ask me the same question
…and listened intently to my negative answer.
The next day, I noticed that the search was still on. The pen was spending less time in the nest – a worrying feature. Usually mute swans lay one egg a day, up to 4-6 eggs in a season, and sit on the nest till the eggs hatch.
At one point my heart gave a little leap as I spotted a tiny fellow scurrying past the reeds. I looked around for the pen, hoping I might enlighten her to the whereabouts of her baby.
But the wise mother took one look at the little fellow and turned to me with a scornful gesture as though to say ‘That is NOT my baby!’
She then scolded mama duck, warning her to take better care of her children.
I was able to return to the lake only four days later. Something was definitely wrong.
The pen and the cob seemed disinterested, distant, almost in denial (was this me attributing human emotions to this pair?)
The nest lay abandoned. There were only two eggs, one within the nest and one lay amongst the long reeds. A pair of coots had taken occupancy of the nest.
The pen must have noticed that there was no movement detected from within the eggs and hence decided to abandon them.
I prepared to return with a heavy heart, momentarily elevated by the sight of the brave young fellow swimming confidently along as his older siblings gathered together in a huddle. Good luck, I whispered.
Did the walk home seem longer?
An observer of nature and human beings with a keen interest in matters of the mind, Arun Kishore is a psychiatrist working in the UK.