It seems swans are out to get me this week. On Monday, my train was delayed by one loafing about the tracks somewhere around Peterborough (I did not at any point mutter ‘just run the bloody thing over, it’ll shift if it knows what’s good for it’) and for the past few days I’ve been bombarded with phone calls about the blasted things.
The popularity of swans is something of a mystery to me. Presumably it’s because they’re big, white, hard to miss and easy to identify. They can look quite serene from a distance, but a good deal less so if you get too up close and personal with them. I was surprised to see it as low as 7th in the Vote for Britain’s National Bird (the public showing only marginally more imagination by opting for the Robin). There’s something about swans that seem to attract an inordinate amount of affection. Are we all just closet royalists? Everywhere I have worked to date, the calls regarding swans outstrip that of every other species combined. I used to laugh about it until recently I had to field these calls.
Bizarrely I had a string of calls this week about a particular swan that was ‘stuck’ the wrong side of some fencing, separating it from the pond and the rest of it’s kin. I wouldn’t have minded so much but the fence was about ankle height (this was put into context when an acquaintance of mine who shall remain nameless admitted that they didn’t know swans could actually fly).
Some of these calls have, of course, been loaded with subtext. On some occasions calling it subtext is a little kind. I have been told outright on more than one instance that we need to keep a better eye on our swans because of ‘the Poles’. I have always wondered exactly what swan tastes like. I’ve even been tempted…but no, of course I’d never do that. What would Her Maj say?
But like geese, the growing population of swans, particularly on urban ponds and lakes, can be a problem. A pair on one of my local water bodies has raised 8 cygnets to adulthood. 8! Propped up, no doubt, by the huge volume of bread that gets shufted their way almost every day. That’s a huge amount of eutrophication going on, with its knock-on effects to the general biodiversity of these sites. Though I’m all for using as many means as possible to encourage public engagement with greenspace, we need to do this responsibly.
Then there’s the other thing about swans…the thing we were all told about in reverential tones by wary parents: They break arms. A quick internet search as flagged up absolutely 0 examples of this bone-cracking ability and I am beginning to wonder if this is just another one of those big wind-ups parents play on their kids, like Santa Claus, or the one about a benevolent loving world that rewards hard work.
Take the pair on my local common. They continue to cause much confusion. Once again they have failed to build a nest or partake in any of the other couple-based activities one might expect. This has provoked some salacious and uncharitable mutterings from the local Egyptian Geese. The swans have responded by ceremoniously drowning each and every gosling they produce. Indeed, as part of my project my volunteers have gradually monitored the arrival and subsequent demise of broods of Canada Geese, coots, moorhens and tufted ducks as part of the Wetland Bird Survey. Is it spite? Jealousy? Are they just evil minded? Probably not. Although on the other hand, take Hannibal the swan, who sounds like a right sod:
‘After each attack, Hannibal would bring his son to view the aftermath while holding his wings up in celebration.’
I think that’s what has always slightly befuddled me about the popularity of swans. Of all waterfowl, I have to say I find them the least sympathetic. Take coots – plucky, aggressive, brash little buggers. Or moorhens – secretive and cunning pacifists. Or, good grief, Canada Geese – big, dumb, honking moron jocks of the amenity space pond-world. Even they have some kind of stupid, lumbering Lennie-esque charm. But swans? For me, there’s always been something about that pure white appearance that masks the cold, hard mind of a psychopath.