Feeding swans
April 18, 2005 2:59 AM   Subscribe

A pair of swans are nesting on the river near my flat, is there anything I could do which might help them and their cygnets to survive? Any food I could provide, etc or would I be helping them best by just staying well away?
posted by biffa to Pets & Animals (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That's so great! There are swans where I live, but I almost never see the cygnets until they're about 75% of the size of an adult swan, so I'm envious at your impending cygnet-glimpsing.

I think the answer is almost guaranteed to be "leave 'em alone", especially because swans are huge (mute swans are one of the three heaviest species of flying birds on the planet) and they can be amazingly aggressive when nesting, even towards adult humans on occasion.

Swans eat underwater plants (and I think I've also seen them eating algae), so pretty much any food you'd give them would probably not be better for them than what they'll eat in the water. Here in Berlin, there are signs all along the canals and river asking people not to feed the waterfowl because it's harmful to them (and to the water systems in general). Of course, people do feed them and the swans and other birds certainly appear to be thriving, so who knows.

If you're in an urban environment where swans have chosen to live, they probably already have pretty good odds due to the lack of medium-sized predators -- I'd imagine that that's why they hang around in spite of all the people.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 4:07 AM on April 18, 2005

Not to be rude, but life is tough enough for those birds, young and old, without you pokin' your head in every couple of days. I think you'll find simple observation to be just as rewarding as "getting involved". Take some digital pics and scrapbook the whole process, as best you can anyway. I did that as a kid with nesting hawks (although digital cameras were a dream at that age) and had a great time.
posted by Witty at 5:24 AM on April 18, 2005

They seem to prefer algae over anything else. We have rent-a-swans around here, and the swan renters bring a bale of hay for them to use for nesting (and stack a couple of bales as a windbreak) but hay might be hard to come by where you are, and you wouldn't want to get close to them anyway. They use them to run off the Giant Canadian Geese, which we have way too many of, and it only works if they're nesting. They get pretty aggressive with babies. If they aren't breeding, they don't seem to care if they're sharing the pond with the Loch Ness Monster. I knew an incautious zoologist once who let a 40 lb. mute swan work him into a corner of the fence, and the swan beat the crap out of him.
If you want to do something to help, maybe without getting too close you could pick up anything along the riverbank that they could get around their neck and strangle on.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:34 AM on April 18, 2005

Yep, leave them alone.. if they are bothered they are liable to abandon the nest.

In my area it is illegal to harrass a nesting swan. Perhaps the best thing you could do is keep an eye out for people disturbing the nest, either accidently or on purpose.

I hope the nesting is successful... We have several nesting pairs on the river I live on, the young birds are cute as heck, it is fun to watch them mature.
posted by HuronBob at 8:15 AM on April 18, 2005

You might feed them lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, or spinach if anything, though it's probably better to let them forage for themselves. Feeding them can make them more aggressive and dependent on humans for survival. If their location won't support them, it's better that they should move on.
posted by orange swan at 8:24 AM on April 18, 2005

I second, third, fourth and fifth the advice not to get too close to them while they're nesting; my family and I accidentally got too close to a nesting female at a nearby park, and in the split second it took us to realize that the beautiful black swan shifting uneasily right in front of us was actually sitting on a nest, Daddy Swan had appeared hissing. Chased all four of us to the other side of the park, wings spread wide, pedestrians screaming and jumping out of our way. We found out later that they'd been trying to breed for several years now, but each time the egg had been stolen or damaged by park visitors. Jerks.

If you really must watch them, I suggest the use of a camera with a telephoto lens.
posted by Soliloquy at 10:31 AM on April 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Sounds like I'd be right to stay away. They are actually pretty easy to see as they're on an open bank between two bridges so you can see them while they can still be secure. It's quite interesting because they're actually only about 4-5 feet from the rear door of a pub, just over a low wall, so there is a fair amount of incidental noise. They do tend to sit up pretty sharpish (or at least the one who is on the nest does) at any noise but not seen them go off at anything as yet. It looks like they've had a nest (or other swans have) at the same site before so they must be ok with it. To be honest, I just tend to have a quick look in the morning to see how they're getting on, and wondered if there was anything more I could do.
posted by biffa at 10:56 AM on April 18, 2005

is there anything I could do which might help them and their cygnets to survive

Help them survive? Bahahaha! Mute Swans are one of the most pervasive invasive species of Europe and America. They are even not native to England; they were brought in at royal pleasure from Asia, to make the Thames look pretty. Since then they have spread like a cancer over the estuarine waters of Europe and North America, multiplying at leisure since there are few natural controls on their population.

Give 'em, oh, five years and you'll be asking how to eradicate them and their many hundreds of young from your river, and also you'll want to know how to bring back the less charismatic flora and fauna that their overpopulated numbers will destroy, and how to remove their copious shit and its bacterial burden from your yard. So you're saying you want to help them survive? Just stand well back and watch.

{The above is, of course, predicated on the idea that you are plagued with Mute Swans. In the event that you are talking about a rarer native Tundra swan or Trumpeter swan, the advice is still: do nothing, but you might want to call your local Audubon or other bird-friendly nonprofit and just report their existence for population data collection. }
posted by Miko at 2:39 PM on April 18, 2005

As everyone says - swans can get very aggressive when nesting. So much so I've seen an Alsatian dog run for his life after attempting to go for a paddle when the male swan went nuts. It was the funniest sight!
posted by floanna at 3:56 PM on April 18, 2005

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