February 24, 2010

Swan wars

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 11:20 am

For many years a pair of swans has lived at Enslow, where my boat Pangolin is moored.  The swans spend their days cruising along the canal and knocking at the sides of boats, begging for bread.  They rarely stray farther than the quarter of a mile line of moored narrowboats except to try their luck at the marina just beyond the bridge.

The male swan must have been part of a study at some time, because his left leg is tagged with the letters BUG.  All the boaters know the pair as Bugsy and his missus.

Last year was a rough one for the Bugsies. 

First, a much younger and larger swan (nicknamed Brutus) tried to move in on the territory, and though Bugsy saw him off, he was badly wounded.  The boaters were incensed.  Down the pub dark threats were muttered against this intruder, and one boater was rumoured to have called the RSPCA anonymously to say that if they didn’t come and take Brutus away he would take matters into his own hands. 

Perhaps Brutus knew what was good for him, but he wasn’t seen again that spring, and after awhile Bugsy dutifully made the missus several nests for her inspection.  She tried first one, and then another, and finally settled on the one almost opposite my boat.

In May I watched the proud parents take their day old cygnets for a first swimming lesson on the canal.  The little cygnets swam about for five minutes or so and then were tucked back into the nest for the night.

Babies and watchful parents

They were never seen again, though a mink was later spotted looking sleek and well fed by the lock.  Mrs Bugsy spent weeks more sitting on her nest, but if she had any more eggs they were eaten too.

It made me sad last summer not to see a brood of cygnets growing up.  I went away late September, and when I came back in January, a different family had moved in: Brutus and his missus were back, with one overgrown cygnet, the last one of a brood they must have hatched last spring.

The three begged at my window and I guiltily fed them.  I don’t think any of the other boaters did.  They’re very loyal at Enslow.

Bugsy was gone, and Mrs Bugsy spent her evenings swimming up and down and calling mournfully for him.  The Grumpy Mechanic said, It really just breaks your heart.  Dusty said it was a very bad sign that he had left her.  At the pub everyone asked each other, Have you seen Bugsy? Have you seen Bugsy?

Suddenly the word in the pub was he had been spotted in a field.  Everyone shook their heads: He was flopping about!  He must have had a stroke! Or something.  The Grumpy Mechanic said Bugsy was ever so old.  The Grumpy Mechanic has been here the longest, twenty years now, but he can’t remember just when Bugsy came.   Years and years back, he said.  He was sure there was a number you could call for Swan Rescue.  A van would come and pick Bugsy up.  Poor old Bugsy!  It breaks your heart!

Two of the boaters decided to pick him up themselves, but when they got to the field, he was gone, and we were back to, Have you seen Bugsy?  Have you seen Bugsy?

Brutus’ cygnet disappeared first – nine months old and time to strike off on his own, I suppose – and then, suddenly, he and his missus left too.  I watched them fly noisily over the canal and across the fields and I didn’t see them again. 

When I realised Mrs Bugsy had given up her mournful search and was gone as well, I was very sad.  For a while we had no swans at all.

I took a walk to Pigeon’s lock, two miles up the towpath, and spotted a pair of swans on the opposite side.  One swam close to me, begging for bread, and I felt ridiculously happy when I saw that it was Bugsy.

I was so glad Bugsy was all right and he and his missus were together again, but I wondered if they would ever come back to Enslow.  I missed them!

This morning they were here, knocking on the boat.  I opened my window to throw them bread, and a duck joined in the happy feasting.

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.

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