by Paul Cormacain
A family of mute swans was settled on the lake. There was mama swan, and papa swan, and five young swans, the cygnets. A picture of happy, contented family life.
This is one of our local birds which mates for life, setting a good example to other birds, indigent, indigenous and rich humans alike.
The swans started buildings their nest in March, with the female accepting sticks and reeds fetched by the male. She arranged them in a huge pile on wet waterside and shortly afterwards she started laying eggs.
Large eggs they are, dark grey-green, and I have not seen one in years.
In my youth it was more acceptable to disturb birds and this would include approaching swans' nests with a view to view them.
It could be dangerous for the swans were capable of attacking you, but perhaps that was part of the thrill of getting a look at the eggs.
In our uneducated minds it was a thrill to see swans' eggs on the nest, and if mama or papa swan did not hit you a thump with their wings so much the better.
The number of eggs was usually five to seven, and then the parents would take turns to incubate. This would go on for about 36 days and then the eggs would hatch. 36 days is a long time to be sitting around on eggs but sure would not all parents do anything for their children?
The swans are very family-orientated. Both parents feed and protect the young who leave the nest after one or two days.
The parents bring the young vegetation, small fish, frogs and insects, what you would call a good healthy all-round diet. They also teach them to fend for themselves. So the cygnets grow and grow and grow, and continue to hang around as a family group with the old ones.
It is always a nice sight to see them, coming into the summer, as a family.
Come the autumn they will still be together, then in the winter they still remain as a unit. Next spring the parents will begin thinking about starting a new family, and they will start wondering about what to do with the old family.
So they will say, 'look, kids, it's time to go and live your own lives'.
The advantages of breaking away four the parents will be stressed. Freedom, independence, lack of parental control, they will all be held up as virtues. And when all else fails, the parents will mount a false attack on the young, now not so young, and tell them to get. It is at this stage that the young get!
Papa swan then collects sticks and reeds and brings them to mama and she starts building a nest. Et cetera!
It used to be put out that England first saw the mute swan in 1192, when
some of these
birds were imported from Cyprus. But there were already many swans in England before that.
So we are unsure about when the first mute arrived in England, but it was some time before that and the bird was well spread before that date.
Scotland benefited from the spread of the bird, as did Wales but details of timing are very incomplete. In all likelihood the bird crossed the Irish Sea from Wales or Scotland or both not long after they arrived. Then the rich and powerful took to keeping swans, pinioning them near their lakes and getting the lackeys to look after them.
It was almost a sign of prestige, having a few swans on the estate, swans which did not fly away. They were no more enlightened then than we were as children.
The swan was very popular in the pot in those days. So we have progressed somewhat.
In this century many swans live close to Personkind. They will accept food from humans and at times, and in places, will take food from the hand. They are equally at home in remote spots of Scotland and the west of Ireland, and will avoid humans like the plague.
There have been fluctuations in their numbers over the centuries, but reasonably modern records show that a large increase over a period is balanced by a large decrease over a subsequent period. So a healthy population persists, with increases and decreases.
Mute swans still breed all over Britain and Ireland, with a few exceptions. Some upland areas are unsuitable, as are some off-lying islands. In the Shetlands the introduction of mute swans has been tried in the pas, but has never succeeded. Who can explain that?