Trumpeter Swans with Cygnets at Milliken Park in Scarborough
Trumpeter Swans with Cygnets at Milliken Park in Scarborough
How exciting to find that the pair of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) at our local park in north Scarborough now have two recently-hatched offspring to care for. As Bob and I looked on, the cygnets kept very close to “mom” on the shore of the pond…
while “dad”, the male Swan, stood in shallow water nearby. A rock just below the surface was the perfect platform upon which the cob, as the males are otherwise known, assumed a one-legged stance and proceeded to preen his feathers at length. For at least 20 minutes to half an hour, the cob took great care to ruffle his feathers, pluck loose ones that scattered on the breeze, and to stretch his wings.
The cygnets were swimming nearby…
but soon clambered up onto the clearing at the water’s edge to be near their mother. Stationed on that small sandy point, the female Swan or pen, as she is called, concentrated on preening her own feathers at the exclusion of any other activity.
It was only three weeks earlier that Bob and I had been visiting Milliken Park when we first spotted this pair of Trumpeter Swans. Earlier that morning, one of the gardeners had alerted us to the fact that a pair of Swans had built a nest in amongst the bulrushes, and we actually got a glimpse of the female sitting there, well camouflaged behind a dense screen of stalks and leaves. The male, on the other hand, was seen on the opposite shore taking refuge in the long grasses and small bushes in the shade of a large tree.
Over the years, Bob and I have seen Mallard Ducks, Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Chinese Swan Geese, and a black Muscovy Duck plying the waters of the good-sized pond at Milliken Park, so we were pleasantly surprised this spring to discover the pair of Trumpeter Swans that apparently found the pond suitable for raising a family.
With the cygnets now hatched and under the watchful eye of both parents, it seemed that the pen could dedicate some time to her daily personal grooming. She was very meticulous about cleaning her plumage and carried out repeatedly precise manipulations of her wings and feathers . Although the condition of a Swan’s feathers is very important when trying to attract a mate, this pair of Trumpeter Swans obviously had already established their relationship some time in the past. So why were the swans spending so much time tending to their appearance?
Well, as we looked on, the two cygnets took great pains to imitate their mother’s actions and went through many of the same motions. These will be lessons well learned because Swans must keep their feathers in good condition to withstand winter’s cold and to guard against damage from friction when flying.
Hidden from view beneath the Swan’s flight and contour feathers is a dense layer of down, two inches (5 cm) of thick, fluffy feathers that lay next to the skin. It is that protective layer of down that traps the Swan’s body heat and keeps it insulated against winter’s icy chill, cold air temperatures when flying at higher altitudes, and frigid waters.
As Bob and I observed both the male and female Swans, we marveled at their flexibility. Through slick contortions of their long neck, they were able to reach every inch of their bodies. At the base of a Swan’s tail is a gland that secretes preen oil when the birds are preening, and the Swans use their beaks and heads to distribute the oil over all of their 25,000 feathers. The combination of fat and wax that make up the oil waterproofs the feathers, conditions the feathers and helps prevent fraying. At the same time, the bill is moisturized and the Swans absorb necessary vitamins.
The two cygnets worked hard to keep up with the practice there in the female’s shadow, while she continued to transfer preen oil onto her body, wings, and onto the skin of her feet and legs. The male concentrated his efforts on everything but his webs and legs since he was still standing one-legged in the water.
Speaking of the female Trumpeter Swan’s feet, it seemed odd to Bob and me that she had pale, flesh-toned feet and legs as opposed to the usual black seen in mature Trumpeter Swans. Through helpful feedback from viewers at Toronto Birding and the Trumpeter Swan Society, we were able to identify this particular female because of her atypical feet. She is a leucistic Trumpeter Swan that usually winters at Bluffer’s Park, and the only leucistic Trumpeter Swan surviving in Ontario.
In fact, it turns out that these are the first offspring born of this adult pair of Trumpeter Swans. That is indeed special, but I can’t help feel a twinge of regret. The gardeners had informed us that the adults had lost one egg from their first nest, so had to reestablish a second nest to be more removed from predators.
A female Trumpeter Swan lays between 3-12 eggs with one egg being deposited in the nest every two days, so the fact that the first egg went missing actually may have preserved the safety of the other two since evasive action was immediately taken by the parents to locate the nest in a safer spot. The hatchlings are capable of swimming and feeding themselves within 24 hours of entering the world.
When first we caught sight of the Swans that day, the female was dipping her head and neck into the water to stir it up so that bits of food would float towards the surface for the cygnets to feed upon. Insects and small invertebrates make up the bulk of the cygnets’ diet for the first few weeks of life with plant matter being introduced to their diet by the time they are two weeks old.
Perhaps it was because they had their fill that the mother and hatchlings removed themselves from the water to tend to their grooming. Preening is a serious business that occupies almost six hours a day and is usually carried out in half-hour segments. As part of that process, a Swan pulls its bill over the length of the contour and flight feathers which serves to press together the hook-like ends of the feather barbules essentially fastening the feather together again so the air can’t get through.
A point of concern for me is when I learned that the adult Trumpeter Swans moult or shed their feathers in the summer and at such time are rendered flightless. Usually, the loss of the pen’s flight feathers coincides with the hatching of the cygnets so she is unable to fly at a critical time in the hatchlings’ lives. On second thought, since she would never fly away and leave the cygnets untended, it makes sense for the moult to occur at that time.
At about the time that the females’ flight feathers grow back in and she is capable of becoming airborne once again, the cob loses his ability to fly. This staggered moult guarantees that at least one parent is with the cygnets during the brood period. Here, we see a contour feather that had been plucked from the pen’s body while preening.
Bob and I were adoring onlookers for the whole time that the Swans were preening. Although the cygnets will not be fully feathered until they are 9 or 10 weeks old, they certainly were demonstrating their acquired knowledge of how to go about maintaining their plumage. Although Swans do not pair up until they are at least 2 years old, it is mandatory that their feathers reflect good health and vitality to a potential mate.
Finally, with their preening session completed, the family of four retook to the water. With both parents being attentive to their young, they moved off in the direction of the far shore.
With a beautiful show of the pen’s flight feathers, she stretched her wings and then commenced to rile the waters once again so her hungry babies could fill their stomachs.
The next thing you know, the close-knit family unit moved off towards the far end of the pond,
the cygnets duly following behind…
and at times flanked by each parent.
In due course, the family of Swans crossed back to the north side of the pond where the adults hauled themselves onto a grassy knoll while the two cygnets lingered in the shallows nearby.
Should anyone or anything dare to mess with the cygnets, know that the mother Trumpeter Swan will be there to confront you in all her fury. She can deal a dirty blow if need be. We are so lucky to have this family of Swans at our local pond and will look to monitor their progress this summer and on their wintering grounds at Bluffer’s Park. The Trumpeter Swan Society hopes to be able to band the male and the two cygnets at that time.
The Trumpeter Swan Society (TTSS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to assuring the vitality and welfare of wild Trumpeter Swan populations.
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