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January 19, 2010

Swans' Way

A chance meeting at hospital leads to companionship

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

by Julie Hauserman

  • Even with the weight they gained during rehab, the two swans were airborne. Heather Fone/The HSUS

  • The swans were released in Barnstable Harbor where other mute swans had been seen before.Heather Fone/The HSUS

  • Getting a running start, the swan spreads her wings and takes to the air.Heather Fone/The HSUS

  • The swans were able to swm in this small pool during rehabilitation. Heather Fone/The HSUS

  • Heather Fone/The HSUS

Most swans mate for life, so the roadside scene in Plymouth, Mass., was especially heartbreaking: An injured female mute swan lay immobile and hurt while her mate frantically flapped his large wings to “defend” her against passing cars.

Thanks to caring citizens, the pair was rushed by local animal control on Dec. 11 to Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, Mass, a Humane Society of the United States facility that provides emergency care and wildlife rehabilitation 365 days a year.

A Heavy Heart

Sadly, the female was gravely injured and did not survive a deep perforating wound. The male had a severe joint infection from before he arrived at the hospital that would have left him unable to walk or swim over time.

He was started on a course of antibiotics, and physically, he began to recover, but the death of his mate left him depressed. He stopped eating, and staffers had to carefully force feed him for a few weeks to ensure his survival.

As it turns out, the key to his healing turned out to be close by, right there at the wildlife center: A female mute swan who had been hit by a car in late November and was now on the mend.

Fast Friends

In high hopes of boosting the male’s spirits, wildlife center staffers put the two swans together. Thankfully, they took to one another right away, and that’s when the real healing began.

“They both recovered and gained weight,” said Dr. Roberto Aguilar, Cape Wildlife Center’s staff veterinarian. “After introducing the two swans, the staff noted the female following the male around. Eventually, when one was removed for treatment, the other one would call out for the other. We can’t be certain, but we think they have bonded.”  

On Their Own

The pair was released Jan. 16 into Barnstable Harbor, a site where other swans have been seen in the past and that remains open all year. With the weight they gained during rehab, Aguilar wasn’t entirely sure they’d be able to fly quite yet. But it turns out he had nothing to worry about.

After skimming the water, the female took to the air and landed in the water away from the quiet crowd of 60 people on hand to watch. The male vigorously flapped his wings until he finally lifted off and flew over to his partner where they swam for a few minutes before they both flew off.

“The fact that other swans have been on the Barnstable marsh before is encouraging, and such a large open area with good plant cover seems ideal, Dr. Aguilar said. “The fact that part of the area is in the wildlife sanctuary is even better. Folks will want to bird watch for days, I’m sure.”

“We’re hoping they are bonded and that they’re able to find a nice pond and establish their territory before spring,” he continued. “But where they go from there, and even if they stay together, will be up to them.”

The birds were released after a joint program about swans, hosted by the Cape Wildlife Center and Massachusetts Audubon Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary. The experts explained the birds’ biology and ecology on the Cape, their role as introduced wildlife and some of the issues associated with their presence.

Mute Swan Facts

Mute swans are an introduced species, but very successful, as most invasive species tend to be. They are hardy and aggressive defenders of their territory. Rehabilitation is allowed only if the birds legitimately can be reintroduced to the environment successfully and in a relatively short time.

At last aerial count, more than 1,000 swans were spotted in Massachusetts, many of those on the Cape. Swans tend to run into trouble more often in winter when they are moving about or searching for food, Aguilar noted. The swans rehabilitated at Cape Wildlife Center have wound up there as a direct or indirect result of conflict with humans.


 

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