curiosity about the ways of the world

One snort for hello?

Her poor old neck is still a little twisted. But she’s a survivor, our Mrs Swan, and today as always she comes to the bank, sunshine bouncing off her snowdrop-white feathers, head on one side with a look of expectation. Has she come for a chat?

I’m learning to speak swan. According to several websites the Mute Swan has many sounds and signs to get their message across, as anyone who has come in contact on the water’s edge will know. Hissing needs no translation. But the snorts, neck stretching and tail wagging – they are more nuanced, more interesting. And of course open to all kinds of misinterpretation.

One snort for ‘Hello’. Well, perhaps, or more like: ‘Where’s my breakfast?’ ‘What time do you call this?’ ‘Ok, that’s near enough.’

We’ve been keeping a keener eye and ear on the signals since the mysterious injury befell our female swan some time between storms Arwen and Barra. We have no idea how it happened. One day she was looking fine, as always a little more standoffish than her male partner but poised and elegant as she glided across the pond. That beautiful curved neck reflected in the water luring the camera out of your pocket for yet another snapshot. Next day she was a sorry sight: unsteady, off balance in the water, struggling to swallow food, a strange red mark just beneath her head and her elegant neck sadly twisted.

Call for help

What could we do? We stood helpless on the bank for a while and then we called the SSPCA helpline. I felt a little apologetic. According to the website my call could have been one of more than 540 that cold, wet Sunday. I had apologetically called for help once before when our young people spotted an orphaned duckling on the bank. That was a Sunday too. To our amazement a kindly animal rescue officer appeared up the lane within an hour or so. Smart and efficient in his uniform, he scooped up the little creature and popped it in a handy box in the boot of the SSPCA truck. If other recently rescued orphaned ducklings took to it, he said, there was a reasonably hopeful future for our little bird.

Swans are not so easy to scoop up. But once again the receptionist – calm and comforting – said the duty officer would definitely call or visit if at all possible. And so she did. After a quick phone call, a lovely young woman appeared up the lane, her decorative piercing and vivid red hair adding a touch of individuality to the smart uniform.

Kind, friendly and knowledgeable, she stood and watched from the bank. In the fading light of a long day, she gave no sign that this was a waste of time. Although the swan wouldn’t come near enough to give an idea of what’s wrong, the officer reassured us she will keep in touch and return if things get worse.

Wipe out

I often think what an odd lot we are. Here I am standing on the bank, trying to speak swan – the bird eyeing me up (the most interesting thing about me being the scoop full of grain in my hand) while I project my emotions and anxieties on to this beautiful wild creature. By nature, I’m probably a sentimental sort. But survival has become a more pressing concern since Covid reintroduced me to mortality. It’s not just survival. Lockdown reminded us that humans are part of a thrilling natural scheme. We seek sunlight and fresh air. Birdsong and butterfly wings stir emotions, inspiration.

The irony is that every day, out of sight and mind, human behaviour is carelessly wiping out birds, insects and animals by the unseen thousands. A report warning of ‘ecological meltdown’ in the UK was published just before COP26 in Glasgow. According to the Natural History Museum reports ‘Britain has lost nearly half of its biodiversity since the Industrial Revolution, and experts warn continued global biodiversity loss will lead to an irreversible ecological crisis.’

Worldwide, we’re heading for the sixth mass extinction: ‘More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century.’ Twenty years? That’s in less than the time since Ray and I arrived at Pond Cottage in the early nineties.

The current plan to develop a new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy this year is an opportunity we must grab with both hands.

Scottish wildlife Trust ‘Why 2022 is a critical year for biodiversity

Planting for life

It doesn’t have to be like this, as David Attenborough has reminded us at the end of every episode of his most urgently powerful and poignant series: Green Planet, and with force in the final fifth, Human Worlds. Solutions are tantalisingly within reach. At no risk to ourselves we can make our own surrounds much greener – and a lot more pleasant.

Handwritten notes for Great Garden Birdwatch 2022

Sitting down to take part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch I was pleased to see a rewarding number of birds obligingly visiting the birdtable in time for the count. So many tits (blue, great, coal and most delightful of all clusters of long tailed tits), more chaffinches than last year, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, magpies (two for joy), jays, one tree creeper… can I cheat and add the bull finches we saw last weekend? Above the woodland, buzzards. On and around the pond, one greywagtail, two mallard ducks, two goosanders and our resident two swans. But there’s much more to this story than my notebook shows.

More birds than ever before were placed on the Red list of greatest conservation concern in the latest report, published in 2021.

Birds of Conservation Concern: RSPB

Swan numbers are not at risk…not yet anyway, though seasonal change, extreme weather and polluted waters pose threats for all wildlife. Food is essential, of course. Habitat is vital. The right plants in the right place can ensure a good supply of food and shelter all year round. In our small way, Ray and I have discovered that we have increased both even as we improved the look and feel of the land around Pond Cottage: sowing seeds, planting grasses, extending hedgerows, securing pond banks. And it’s wonderful to see red squirrels taking advantage of the mix of old conifers, oaks and beeches – as well as our newer hazels, chestnuts and walnuts.

That’s near enough

We’re also learning when it’s best to stand back. As the animal rescue officer explained, she could do more harm than good by trying to haul the swan out of the water, alarming not just the female but her partner too. Touchingly, the male has stayed protectively close yet patiently allowing his wounded mate first shares at the feeding place.

Swans approaching the bank, no need for words, they want to be fed

They snort – perhaps with pleasure – greeting our arrival with scoops of grain. We may never know what caused the neck injury (the SSPCA has experience of swans swallowing fishing tackle though that seems unlikely on our pond) but so far Mrs Swan keeps going. The mild winter is obviously kindling thoughts of spring in the male. All being well, we hope we will be able to let the SSPCA know a new generation has hatched when summer comes.

SSPCA receive no government funding. We can donate to SSPCA HERE

PS: The Pond Garden will be open during 2022 by arrangement for Scotland’s Gardens Scheme

Further reading:

The Bigger Picture: RSPB;

Why 2022 is a critical year for biodiversity, Scottish Wildlife Trust

Nearly half of Britain’s biodiversity gone since Industrial Revolution: The Guardian

Petition the Scottish Government: An Enforceable Human Right to a healthy environment: Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland

For background, an earlier ‘swan watch’ post:

1 Comment

  1. David Gow

    The male at Inverleith pond went walkabout for a wee while then seems to have sauntered back…always enjoy your thoughtful takes on PC’s rich pond life

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