Once upon a time, there was a male mute swan. Now, a lot of people don’t like mute swans because they’re not native. But my lake is surrounded with condos and houses, has very little habitat, and I’ve seen one flock of native swans in the 16 years I’ve been here . . . and they flew off together. I’d rather have a mute swan than no swans at all, so when this mute swan discovered that I feed mallard ducks in my back yard, I went out to meet him. Admittedly, he didn’t look very friendly.
I was prepared to offer him some cattails to nest in, but what he really wanted was corn. So I gave him some. He was quite nice until I ran out of corn; then he hissed at me. So I ran off to get more corn. I was trained pretty quickly. He visited me in the summer of 2009 whenever he was hungry.
Because he’s rather awkward on land, I named my pal Mr. Gawky. He had a sweetie and they raised two swan babies in 2009. In the fall, they all flew off. I didn’t think I’d see Mr. Gawky again.
But Mr. and Mrs. Gawky returned to our lake in March 2010. They hung out on the ice and snow for a couple of days, leaving big footprints.
After a few days, the ice began to melt and Mr. Gawky came to see me in my backyard, at the water’s edge.
Soon all the ice was melted and Mrs. and Mrs. Gawky began making a nest.
Lots of people live on our lake and lots of people thought it was nifty that the Gawkys were nesting on the lake. Lots of people got so close to the nest, though, that the Gawkys abandoned the first nest and made another one in thicker vegetation. While Mrs. Gawky sat on the nest, Mr. Gawky was always nearby to guard her. He chased other passing swans off the lake, but never hurt any of them.
Mr. Gawky didn’t let geese get too close, either. Usually, all he had to do is get all puffed up and they’d fly away.
Even when Mr. Gawky was tired, he’d float around in front of the nest.
About a month after eggs were laid, five fuzzy baby swans, called signets, hatched. Signet sounds like a snobby French word, so I just call them babies.
One baby took the lazy way out right away.
Within a few days, the other babies figured out how to get a free ride, too.
The babies spent most of their time eating. . .
. . . and resting.
In fact, the babies spent months eating and resting, and over time, their soft downy fuzz turned into feathers, and their gray beaks turned pale pink.
The baby swans learned a lot from their parents, including swan yoga.
The Gawky babies also learned that when I made a pathetic imitation of their call, corn usually follows.
One day in the early fall, Mr. Gawky noticed that the babies had big wings with lots of feathers.
He decided it was time for the babies to learn how to fly. He took to the air, perhaps hoping they would follow.
The babies watched for a moment, but soon went back to eating. They made happy chirping noises when they ate.
Mr. Gawky landed, and after a few minutes both Mr. and Mrs. Gawky took to the air.
The babies were not impressed and continued eating.
Not to be put off, Mr. Gawky approached the babies looking like a tank, and chased them around.
Once he got closer to the babies, he puffed himself up to show that he meant business. At first the babies didn’t know what to make of their angry looking father and they made this sad peeping noise as if they were in danger.
When the babies still didn’t understand what they were supposed to do, Mrs. Gawky got in front of the babies and took to the air while Mr. Gawky followed behind all puffed up. One of the babies finally understood and tried taking to the air. At first he looked more like a motor boat propelling across the water.
It took a lot of effort.
And after the baby swan got both feet out of the water . . .
. . . he called it quits for the day. And went back to eating.
Eventually, the persistence of the adult Gawkys paid off and all three of the babies took to the air.
Soon the babies were all grown up. Their beaks were almost the same color as their parents. Some days they’d fly off for the day without Mr. and Mrs. Gawky, and without telling anyone where they were going.
The Gawkys reunited most evenings, and they stayed on the lake until the lake began to freeze in early December. This is the last photo I took of the swan family before the ice froze.
Our lake is now completely frozen and the Gawkys have gone off to wherever Gawkys go in the winter, a place that remains unknown to me because they left no forwarding address. I can only hope that come March of 2011, I will see him and the Mrs. again. Because Mr. Gawky became part of the daily fabric of life on my lake, and he proved to me that mute swans aren’t the big, bad birdies some people think they are.