“Ballerina Birds!”

Big Bird has landed!! An elegant and exotic Mute Swan found grounded in Morehead City unable to stand, appearing sickly and underweight has been admitted to The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. With no injuries evident during examination, the staff has theorized toxicity and is flushing her system to rid her of possible poisons or lead ingestion. Time will tell if our efforts will win the race against organ damage. She is still weak, but is eating very well, which is always a good sign. The admission of a Mute Swan is atypical to the shelter because they are not native here. They are common place in Europe and Asia and a few were imported to northern regions of the United States during the 18th century. Their American population has grown in the last few years and although rare to see Mute Swans this far south, it is believed that because they are not migratory, developers or land owners are bringing them in to decorate ponds and lakes. Probably not the best thing to do, but it is happening. If a few have made it here on their own, that is a major feat for one of the heaviest flying birds on the planet! Male Mute Swans, known as Cobs, typically weigh between 23 to 27 pounds, and females weigh in at a little less. The only waterfowl heavier than the Mute Swan is the Trumpeter Swan. The beautiful, adult Mute Swan can tower four feet high, cover 56 to 62 inches of length in ground space and their wing span is an impressive 79 to 94 inches! Their bill is vibrant orange with a black base and sports a bulging black knob on the base. A Mute Swan is easily recognizable with its long neck curved into an S and its snowy-white plumage. Sometimes under-feathering presents in orange or brown, but that is stain caused by iron and tannins in the water. These gorgeous, giant water birds are written into fairy tales, romanticized because a pair of Swans, who mate for life, create a “lover’s heart” as their heads touch when they greet or during mating and are represented in ballets during dance. As a child, this author always referred to beautiful swans as ‘Ballerina Birds’ after experiencing “Swan Lake.” Mute Swans feed on aquatic plants, exclusively on submerged aquatic vegetation, such as read head grass and widgeon grass, as well as, fish, frogs and insects. It is estimated that the adult male Mute Swan eats up to nine pounds of aquatic vegetation every day and for that reason alone, their presence is controversial. That voracious appetite can easily disturb local ecosystems and displace native wildlife species. They feed on underwater plants by plunging their long neck into the water. Our Mute Swan at the shelter is currently putting away quite the haul of greens and trout chow. Mute Swans nest on large mounds they build in the middle of a shallow lake or pond. They reuse the same nest each year, restoring or rebuilding as needed. Male and female swans share the care of the nest. Although Mute Swans appear very statuesque and dignified, they are strongly territorial and become fiercely aggressive when defending their nest. They have been known to attack people who venture into their nesting area by biting and jabbing with the bony spurs on their wings. So, if you catch a glimpse of a Mute Swan and choose to go bold by moving in to get a closer look, be careful. If you hear a hissing or grunting sound and see the Swan’s wings half raised, that is a threat display, and they will be coming after you! The Female Mute Swan, called the Pen, lays four to eight greenish brown eggs and the hatchlings, called cygnets, are ash gray-brown born within 35 to 38 days. Their bill is grayish rather than orange for the first year. Once the cygnets fledge, it is not uncommon to see the whole family looking for food. In approximately three months after hatching they are adult size but do not match adult coloring. Within 6 to 7 months the youngsters develop the famous white plumage and the long neck that helps them reach through the water to snatch the aquatic food they enjoy. The young start pairing at age one and become sexually mature at age two but usually don’t reproduce until age three or four. Mute Swans spend most of their time floating on the water, and in our area you may find them in city park ponds, rivers, lakes, coastal bays, wetlands, marshes, streams, slow flowing areas, large fresh water areas and estuaries. Although they do grunt when making a threat, they are generally silent waterfowl. The most familiar sound associated with the Mute Swan is the ‘whooshing’ of their wings in flight because it takes extreme effort to take off from the water. Adult Mute Swans don’t have many natural enemies, other than the Fox, who have been known to attack, but because the Mute Swan is so big, fierce and agile for a bird that size, the fox doesn’t always win! There are threats greater to the swan than predators. Pollution, lead poisoning, swallowing discarded fishing hooks and fishing line entanglements are extremely dangerous encounters for Mute Swans. Also, if they take flight, collisions with overhead power lines have been known to occur. Their longevity in the wild is only five to six years but in domestication, up to 25 years. Please keep in mind that it is unlawful for anyone to release Mute Swans into the public waters of North Carolina, but they can be maintained on privately controlled waters that do not have access to public waters, but then you must ensure the Mute Swans understand that they must stay put, and therein lies the challenge. We are working hard to help our big, beautiful girl recover so she can return to her Mute Swan mate, as well as, goose and swan friends in her neighborhood pond that does not reach public NC water!

best always and Happy Easter!,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All