Nature Notes: A Voice for Mute Swans

Sometimes they don’t fly south, like the other snowbirds, they walk south
A mute swan tended to one of her cygnets at Town Pond in East Hampton. Mute swans lay their eggs each April or May, then incubate them for about a month. Carissa Katz

    East Hampton is rich in early American lore and artifacts and it has done a good job preserving them. Before East Hampton Town replaced its red brick Town Hall on Pantigo Road with historic houses and outbuildings, the East Hampton Village administration was well ensconced in a period-piece house on Main Street. The Hook Mill, the old cemetery, Clinton Academy, Mulford Farm, and Town Pond all speak to a village that preserves its past and whose past functions as its presence.

    Of all of these enshrined symbols there is another that is not only longstanding, but very much alive. It is the swans that annually breed in Town Pond, which, I’m told, has been going on ever since the pond was crafted out of a marsh more than a century ago. Like so many of us who live here, they go south for the winter, but not very far south. They go to Hook Pond, Georgica Pond and, perhaps, all the way to Sagg Pond, depending upon which one or two is not completely iced over. And sometimes they don’t fly south, like the other snowbirds, they walk south.

    There isn’t a year that goes by that at least one local newspaper doesn’t picture a swan or two. Five or six years ago, the picture of the female swan with its little cygnets on her back moseying around in the pond was a highlight in the repertoire. In this part of Long Island, the Town Pond mute swans are as celebrated as Punxsutawney Phil in Pennyslvania and, maybe, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

    Several swan watchers, swan feeders, and swan rehabilitators come to mind. The wonderful centenarian, Camilla Jewett, who sadly left us a few weeks ago, watched them daily from her house across the street for more than half a century. Sigrid Owen photographed and videoed them, and looked to see that they were in good stead while they were nesting and raising their young. The Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons rescued and rehabilitated injured village swans on more than one occasion. Our new town justice, Steven Tekulsky, watched over them. When he wasn’t busy with his family or serving a client, he was often at Town Pond photographing them.

    There are at least eight swan species throughout the world: two in South America, two in North America, one in Australia and New Zealand, three in Eurasia, and three in Asia. The Town Pond swans are mute swans, Cygnus olor. This swan is from western Eurasia but was imported to America in the mid-1800s. It is the largest of the swans. Males average 26 pounds, females, 19 pounds. The swan’s voice is a muffled cough that is barely audible, thus the name “mute,” while its song is the rhythmic beat of its wings, like a bassoon pulsing a monotonic low note as it passes overhead.

    The mute swan pair raises its cygnets in a family that parallels the American family, the kind represented by Blondie and Dagwood in the comics, the Nelsons of old TV, the Aldriches of old radio, a kind of family that sticks together through thick and thin, the kind that sociologists tell us is no longer typically American.

    The male and female swans form a conjugal couple and while they are not completely monogamous the way the Bewick swans of Asia are, they stick together for many years in a row. Occasionally female ousts the older male, the cob, in favor of a younger one. The female, or “pen,” lays on average six to eight eggs each April or early May in a nest of rushes and other grassy filaments on the ground near the water’s edge as geese and many ducks do. She incubates for almost a month, then the cygnets hatch out and immediately take to the water as they are precocial, or relatively mature when they hatch, similar to piping plover, bobwhite, turkey, and pheasant young.

    The parents stay together and fuss over the young, help them feed, and carefully guard them. The male can be extremely pugnacious during their upbringing and has charged kayaks, foxes, and other interlopers that get too close to the young. Wild turkey males looking after their harems do the same. As in so many families, when the grayish babies finally get as big as mom and pop and molt into their adult white feathered plumages, the parents kick them out, just as human parents have to do when their kids drop out of college and come back to live at home. In other words, a swan family is not so different than a modern human family and that is one of the reasons we tend to like them, even identify with them.

    Mute swans are elegant in form, thus so they inspired Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet. The two other American swans, tundra and trumpeter, have straight necks, the mute swan’s graceful sigmoid neck inspired Leonardo da Vinci and other artists to paint them and Yeats to write a poem about them, “Leda and the Swan,” based on a Greek myth of the same name. There was also a 1956 movie, “The Swan,” with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness, and of course the classic fairy tail, “The Ugly Duckling,” in which the so-called duckling baby grows up to become a beautiful swan.

    As for other members of the swan, geese, and ducks family, very few have been immortalized in the arts and popular culture other than Frankie Laine’s “I must go where the wild geese go,” and, oh yes, Donald and Daffy Duck.

    Swans are beautiful and loveable, but the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t think so. They characterize mute swans as a menace and want to remove them from our side of the planet. Apparently, they intimidate other species of waterfowl and remove too much aquatic vegetation. But, I would think that if they are a menace there would be lots and lots of them. Yet a recent state census says there are only a little over 2,000 of them.

    Last month’s South Fork waterfowl census counted more than 100 between Shinnecock Inlet and Montauk Point. The part of that count centered around the East Hampton, Sagaponack, and Bridgehampton ponds found 23 mute swans, 8,689 Canada geese, 159 black ducks, and 253 mallards. The Montauk Christmas Bird Count tallied 51 mute swans, 796 Canada geese, 141 mallards, and 587 black duck. The Orient Christmas Bird Count counted 23 mute swans, 1,438 Canada geese, 895 black ducks, and 348 mallards. The black duck has been portrayed as one of the species pushed out by the mute swan. This winter’s count figures soundly belie that notion.

    So, there you have it. The state wants to off them, even the state Association of Audubon chapters wants to off them. The East End Audubon Society, which publishes the longstanding Osprey magazine, is an exception, thank God. What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

    Larry Penny can be reached at