In my neck of the woods, it’s so cold today that all breathing beings are probably trying to keep warm by curling up into tiny balls, just like this bird.
This is a trumpeter swan. Fancy name: Cygnus buccinator. Yes, in case you were wondering, its call sounds a lot like a trumpet. They’re beautiful giants – up to 6 feet in length and 25 pounds or so – but you really can’t appreciate their size until you’re standing close to one.
We’re lucky enough to have a family of swans living in our local pond. The bird pictured was born in June of this year. Its plumage has been grey for most of its brief life, and by next year it’ll be a brilliant white.
In the photo, the swan’s elegant neck is curved round, with the beak tucked into the feathers on its back. Can you see the open eyeball peeking out near the top right of its body? This swan’s not asleep. It’s probably lost in thought. (If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s quietly lamenting the fact that it doesn’t have a snowsuit. Also, that nobody makes snowsuits in the correct shape for a giant bird.)
This swan is tagged to identify it (“P09”, as you can see in the photo), as are its parents and five siblings. I’ve loved being able to watch this family grow throughout the seasons.
Theirs is a happy story of recovery (so far). Conservation has helped trumpeter swan populations rebound after being nearly decimated a century ago by hunting and habitat loss. With the help of dedicated people, these birds have come back from the brink of extinction.
(There’s hope, people. It’s hard to remember that these days, given the constant reminders of the damage we inflict on our planet and on one another. We can use our power for good, too.)
According to what I’ve read, swans have strong family bonds. Their survival is heavily dependent on the offspring’s learned patterns of behaviour based on the experiences of their parents and other older swans. The families often return to the same nesting grounds year after year. Even when the birds are mature enough to form their own pair bonds, they often meet up with extended family at wintering sites to continue learning about the resources and dangers of their specific habitats and migration routes.
The birds teach their young. They model. In their own way, they cultivate traditions. Knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. This must be true for so many animal species, though sometimes I think we only associate this behaviour with our own. When swan populations suffer, that knowledge is lost, leaving the youngest birds most vulnerable.
This family of swans is still hanging around our pond, despite the onset of the cold. They’re pretty hardy, from what I understand. But since the birds feed on aquatic plants and the pond will likely be frozen solid in the next few weeks, I wonder whether these birds will need to depart soon for more hospitable waters.
Listen to your parents, P09. They know when and where to go. I’ll see you back again in the spring – stronger, wiser, and brilliant white.
Read more about the trumpeter swan here: