March 7, 2011

And after only a summer dies the swan

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:53 pm

Our swan news, three months on, has wrangled its way into the local press (and into that dodgiest of all media, local radio) so, since I promised not to take three months (and did exactly that), I guess I had better, finally, tell the story.

First I should warn you that one of the many things my ex-husband held against me was my discursive story-telling style. He was always looking at his watch, fidgeting, and finally demanding, Get on with it.

You might feel the same, but I’ll just say to you what I told him: I can’t help it; it’s the way I tell stories, even when it’s about swans.

A dead cygnet hangs in the trees sixty feet high on the side of Bunkers Hill, just where the road bends sharply and crosses first the Cherwell River and then the South Oxford Canal. I can just see the cygnet from my boat, though only with my binoculars, and because I know what I am looking for.

What surprised me most from the beginning was how white he looked in death, so close, after all, to growing up. On the water I saw him mostly grey, the ugly duckling from the fairy tale, his swan future barely promised in those new and extravagantly white feathers. I guess human teenagers are the same – you don’t quite notice when they’ve grown up either.

This cygnet came late and unexpected into the world.

Last year I wrote about our local swan wars – how our long standing resident Bugsy and his Missus had been ousted by Brutus, and how Brutus finally departed, leaving Mrs Bugsy calling mournfully for her mate, night after night, until finally the pair were reunited, amidst much rejoicing down the pub.

If we celebrated with a little too much of the Rock of Gibraltar’s best beer who could blame us? We – and the swans – had lost a whole brood of cygnets to marauding minks the year before.

But it was not long until Bugsy, in his dotage, had a new challenger, and after a while we stopped seeing Bugsy at all, and saw instead, Scar Face, a skittish young swan with a deep wound in his beak. More and more often he arrived with the perfidious Mrs Bugsy by his side.

At first we boycotted Scar Face as we had Brutus, but when he and Mrs Bugsy banged on our windows together, and together begged for bread, we were not sure what to do.

Down the pub it was finally agreed that if Mrs Bugsy accepted him, so should we.

When I saw them necking – that elegant swan intertwining that precedes mating – I meant to write a post about Mrs Bugsy and her new toy boy. I was going to call it, If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

(I am not, by the way, responsible for any of these swan names; and I am not really sure who is — sometimes rival names are used until one comes to be agreed — in an attempt to rehabilitate Scar Face one boat insisted on calling him Beaky, but the rest of us were not fooled.)

For months Scar Face built elaborate nests for Mrs Bugsy. They begged together at boat windows, Mrs Bugsy graciously expecting bounty and throwing back her neck to receive it, Scar Face hissing and darting and gobbling the bread, then lifting his neck to hiss again.

You can’t blame him! said the Grumpy Mechanic, certain that Scar Face’s injuries were sinister. It’s a human who cut his beak. Probably an axe attack! He hates humans! Why wouldn’t he?

April passed and then May. The swans sat for hours on their nests, but we knew the nests were empty, because at night the swans still swam together. A swan pair with eggs never leaves the nest unattended.

At the pub someone said someone else had called the Swan Authorities to ask how come Scar Face and Mrs Bugs kept making nests but never made babies. Given all the hankypanky on the canal, it was not an unreasonable question.

A month or two later all the men in the pub agreed that the Swan Authorities’ assessment was probably right: Scar Face was firing blanks.

“Firing blanks” is the pub report. I don’t have a clear idea about what the Swan Authorities actually said. In fact, I would doubt entirely the existence of Swan Authorities, except that they apparently added that his beak injury was not on their database, and they would need to look into it. And since it really is true that all swans in the UK belong to the queen, no doubt a large number of very deserving young scientists are employed on my taxes to keep track of the Her Majesty’s birds, and perhaps those scientists might be willing, on a casual basis and when more than usually pressed, to cast judgment on the sexual prowess of their charges.

Whatever (as my children, and all of the rest of you, may be inclined to say), Mrs Bugsy and Scar Face were unexpectedly (to us, at least) delivered of a single chick, in July last year, when most swan babies were already if not coming into adolescence, at least pretty big kids.

I was unreasonably delighted, but also unreasonably anxious. Our cygnet was such a late baby, and an only child too. I watched him grow, and worried. If either Scar Face or Mrs Bugsy appeared at my window without their baby I shouted at them. You’ve left him? What are you thinking? I had not forgotten the mink who ate all the babies the year before, even if they had.

Day by day he grew. When he was a big gangly teenager I thought he was safe.

I watched the flying lessons. I always thought the suggestion of flying lessons was anthropomorphic rubbish. Birds fly, right? That’s what they do. What’s to learn? But really, this teenage swan had flying lessons, just the way you might teach your child to drive. The two grown up swans ran along the canal, making a great racket, pumping their feet and flapping their wings and finally rising up into the air.

The cygnet followed behind them, also racing along the canal, pumping his feet and flapping his wings, and then crying, because he didn’t know how to get in the air, and he was left behind. With unflagging patience his mother and father circled back, rejoined him on the canal and showed him once more.

Over and over the cygnet ran and flapped and couldn’t get into the air, and cried, until finally, one day he rose above the canal and flew, just a few feet at first, and then higher and higher.

Was it because he was born so late, and learned so late what could hurt him? By the end of November, when he finally flew, the trees were bare and treacherous with no leaves to wave him away. Didn’t Nature warn him about the change of seasons? Or maybe our sweet cygnet was just stupid. Almost as soon as he was in the air he flew straight into a leafless branch and broke his neck.

And so the cygnet has hung these three months until the Mystery of the Hanging Swan appeared on the news. Radio Oxford despatched its team to the canal and interviewed the Grumpy Mechanic, among others.

Tell us what these swans mean to you, urged Phil, the breakfast radio presenter. They are very much a part of the local community, aren’t they? How does it feel seeing the dead swan hang fron the tree, every day?


The swan family in July.  You can see the slash on Scar Face's beak.

The swan family in July.  Scar Face is on the right, and if you click on the picture for a larger view you can see the slash in his beak.

Our teenage cygnet, a month or two before he learned to fly.

I didn’t take a picture of our cygnet dead in the tree, because it seemed too much like prying, but if you want to see it it is on the BBC website here.


  1. Is Phil the breakfast gent auditioning for American TV? Seems like the sort of question an American newsreader would ask (though we don’t call them that-here they are anchors). As we drove home from 200 miles northwest of home yesterday, I saw more birds of prey than I can ever recall seeing in a single day. If her were here, the young fellow would have been returned to the ecosystem already.

    Comment by unmitigated me — March 7, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  2. One of my swan friends lost a cygnet last spring. Drug overdose. Learning to fly — and staying airborne — is perilous. Love you, Duchess.

    Comment by msmeta — March 8, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  3. How sad! But it’s like you’re living in a soap opera…

    Comment by Liz — March 8, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  4. Oh how sad. I thoroughly enjoyed your story last year and now this. Just terrible – and I just couldn’t bear to look at the photo from the news.

    Comment by kate & Jim — March 8, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

  5. Very sad – swans do not have good eyesight apparently. My husband, a retired traffic cop, has swan stories about how they mistake the motorway for water.

    Comment by Janet — March 9, 2011 @ 2:58 am

  6. You write in the best short story traditions. I love the way you tell stories, Duchess, so please don’t change that. Your stories are not overlong, and they include details that allow me to feel a part of your world.
    I, too, have read and followed the Swan Tales, and was waiting for the next installment. So sorry that the young prince died so tragically, but – were I a swan – I’d rather meet my end on the wing than be a snack for a mink.
    Although I don’t comment here every time I visit, I love visiting and ‘listening’. Another favorite theme is your pub reports.
    Carry on, Duchess!

    Comment by Martha McLemore (The Crow) — March 9, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  7. Unmitigated — I wondered about that too – crows and magpies eat carrion, and we have plenty around here, but nevertheless our cygnet wasn’t eaten. It was so cold in December and January that he probably never thawed enough to eat, but I can’t explain why he was still there in March.
    Ms Meta — My story is no metaphor, but yours sounds sadder. Love you too (and bring back your blog)!
    Liz — when they make a soap opera about swans, I am tuning in.
    Janet — when you think about how many things can go wrong with the young and inexperienced it is a wonder any of them ever grow up. I hate to think of the carnage for more than swans when they decide to land on the motorway for a quick swim.
    Kate and Martha — Yes, it really was sad! And worse now Mrs Bugs has vanished and poor Scar Face wanders alone.
    Thanks all for persisting, even when I take months to tell a story.

    Comment by Duchess — March 9, 2011 @ 10:52 am

  8. I’m laughing and crying.
    Nature seems unduly cruel to stupid birds even when they belong to the queen.

    Comment by Jan — March 10, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  9. I suspect it’s considered bad form – at least in England where the euphemism originated – for commenters to pick up on references to an ex but I must say his loss is our gain. And that his end was implicit in his exhortation. I was about to provide a brisk essay on my belief that discursive is not a pejorative term, but the maggot of self-preservation got there first and I verified. It is in fact a failing – passing unmethodically from one topic to another. In which case you transcend the practice and the definition. Length and style are perfectly judged.
    Discursiveness is however catching and my previous comments have been monsters. This one will be shorter. My compliments on creating an account of a tragedy based on facts alone, with no attempt to adjectivise or adverbalise your readers into tears. Having written this, I seem to remember I’ve raised the point before and thus my comment will be even shorter than I imagined. Ah, I should add – you managed all this without once mentioning swan upping, a reference which writers less skilled than you toss in to prove they are au courant with our island history. Failing miserably.

    Comment by Barrett Bonden — March 11, 2011 @ 3:51 am

  10. You finally posted the story.
    I know it’s meant to be a very sad story but it’s also funny and I haven’t made up my mind whether to smile or frown. I’ll smile, I think.

    Comment by friko — March 11, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  11. Nature is a tough mistress. Reminded me of the much loved black swans on the village pond at home – they mysteriously disappeared too. Loved the story, Duchess.

    Comment by Kate Lord Brown — March 14, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  12. God, I love this, Duchess. Post more often, why don’t you?

    Comment by Ruth Pennebaker — March 15, 2011 @ 1:20 am

  13. Such a sad story, so beautifully told (yah boo sucks to you, Mr Ex-Duchess) Sorry to hear that Mrs Bugsy has done a runner on Scar Face. They would not be the first couple pulled apart by the loss of a child.

    Comment by Tessa — March 15, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

  14. Wonderful story, even if it’s sad and horrifying. I love the way you tell stories, Duchess. Please keep telling them, even if they’re three months apart. So happy to see this new post!!

    Comment by M.E. — March 20, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  15. Ah- a well told story, I think. Not too long at all! But what the heck is “swan upping?” (comment by Barrett Bonden) I didn’t have the heart to click on the news link either…
    Better luck next swan season.

    Comment by IslandCAT2u — May 11, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

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