Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Life on the Canal - The king is dead?

Last year I watched with delight as two swans, (I will call them Lord Cob and Lady Pen for anthropomorphic convenience) laboured to bring up five cygnets.

They did much of this work within sight of my kitchen window, and I would often take food to them; they all learned to eat from my hand, although one of the cygnets would drag a serrated beak along my fingers in a way that sometimes took the skin off, and another one had a hard bite.

Eventually the birds approached adult size and began to lose their mousy feathers. As their necks became whiter Lord Cob withdrew from them, and, if they got too close, would start to peck at them.

Our neighbours told the story of 2007, in which the adults drove the cygnets away with much violence, when they passed adolescence, so when one of the cygnets disappeared I wondered whether it was simply the first to reach adulthood. Then another vanished, and another, until only one remained; none of them reappeared anywhere along the towpath that had been their home, or for a couple of miles in either direction.

There was much dark talk on the canal about poachers and roast swans. No trace of the missing cygnets was ever seen; no beaks or feathers, which suggests that foxes and mink were not responsible for their disappearance. The remaining cygnet stayed for a while, and then, almost white all over, joined the many territorial fights with other young swans along the canal bank. I did not see him finally leave.

This year the pair of swans from the Northcurch end of the canal, which were unsuccesful at breeding last year, have produced five cygnets. Neighbours say that the male is the son of Lord Cob and Lady Pen, from 2007; he has an orange leg tag. Lord Cob and Lady Pen (both with blue leg tags) shared their nesting space with a heron. I wonder if this is the reason that they have only one cygnet this year. They have stayed very private this year and I have wondered what has happened to them to make the so fiercely protective of their one offspring compared to last year when they were relatively friendly.

Today there was an incident that might shed some light on this behaviour.

As I watched from the kitchen window I saw Lady Pen (with her distinctive neck indentation where she was caught by fishing line) being pursued down the canal by a very aggresive male. Unlike other retreating swans she did not take off and fly to safety, and the reason was paddling as fast as it's little feet could manage - her cygnet was behind the large aggressor.

The attacking swan cornered her against the lock gates and a fight broke out, with the smaller Lady Pen struggling to keep her head above water while the other swan tried to drown her and tear out her wing feathers, and pecking at the point where the wing joins the body. She was screeching (mute? swans?) as well as making that chirping sound that she makes to her cygnets when they are small. Two passing men tried to stop the assault but to no avail, and the men eventually moved on.

Finally Lady Pen managed to climb out of the water, losing a few more feathers in the process, and her cygnet joined her as she fluffed and shook herself back into some sort of shape, while the other swan paddled a short distance away.

When she showed no sign of moving further away, the male came back up onto the bank, threatening again, and Lady Pen took herself and the cygnet off to the next stretch of canal below our lock.

The larger picture is the aggresive male (note the name of the barge going through the lock), the smaller picture is Lady Pen with her cygnet exiting stage left.

Now I wonder... where is Lord Cob? Why was he not around to protect his family (he can be equally aggressive when he sees a threat)?

The reason for the aggression became clear when a female swan and five cygnets came cruising down the canal to join the male at the lock, where Lord Cob and Lady Pen had preened and splashed with their family last year.

The whole family spent half an hour grooming, and being photographed and fed by passers by, and I haven't seen Lady Pen all afternoon.

The king is dead, long live the king?

1 comment:

  1. oh, that is heart breaking, swans are so beautiful it is easy to forget that they are wild. I do hope Lord Cob reappears.