Another day of the morning routine. Wake up. Make coffee. Let chickens out. The half-awake routine was wonderfully interrupted by something other than the chorus of eager chickens wanting to break out of their house and have breakfast. There was a big egg in the run. Bluey greeny sort of thing that had to have come from something much bigger than a chicken, after all, it seemed to weigh about as much as one of the chickens so the hole it came out of was much larger than the ones chickens had.
It was a swan egg. I’d had duck, goose, pheasant, partridges and hen’s eggs before (Waitrose don’t you know) but never one this big. There were’nt any ostriches in the region at that time, so Google confirmed it had come out of a swan.
Thing is, why was it there? Don’t swans pop them out and hang around? Or was this an emergency lay, the swan just needed to get it out else it might have exploded?
Day after day it sat there. Not doing anything. Not changing colour or rolling around like it had an owner. Days and weeks past, still nothing. I came to the conclusion it was an accidental lay just like the chickens do from time to time in a place they wouldn’t normally.
Having been gifted with a swan egg, which to me seemed like a vote of confidence in our poultry setup, it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. No, I wasn’t thinking of frying it, although in hindsight I do wonder what it would have tasted like – but to hatch it somehow. This short-sighted thought involved how to incubate it without considering being a responsible parent if it did hatch. Can you get swan incubators on ebay? Was there a friend in Trowse that had done it before? Would one of the chickens go broody and I could pop it underneath. Whilst the practical problems of one of the chickens sitting on top of the egg in the first place, I simply bought some time (and a wildlife camera) and popped it into the chicken house until I hatched some sort of plan (no pun intended).
A friend lent me her incubator. It was very exciting to open it up and to think this little gadget transformed eggs into chicks. There was a snag. Ducks eggs were the biggest thing it could handle. Whichever way I arranged the swan egg, the lid failed to go on. It was simply too big.
Some three weeks later as the egg was sitting idle, the solution came to me. Or rather, it came to the garden in the shape of another egg. Two swans that had been hanging around our house for a while came back, and the ‘hen’ laid another. And another. More popped out until there were 4 and two very active parents began building the nest. I was excited for two reasons. One, I didn’t have to worry about teaching a cygnet to be a swan (which I would imagine involved swimming in the river and eating weeds) and secondly, nature would simply take over and take the appropriate course. Having no idea if the original egg would ever hatch because I had fiddled with it for weeks, I left it to Mother nature as to whether it would ever produce a swan.
42 days later on the dot, on the 1st July 2018 the first one hatched. During that time Mum and Dad were fascinating to watch as they built the nest. Him bring sticks and presents to her, her taking the bits and arranging them nicely. The nest grew and grew until it was the kind of nest that grand designs (for swans) would have filmed. I had experimented with the wildlife camera, but the novelty soon wore off. Shadowing shapes which I was convinced were visiting Black Boar turned out to be one of my cats. The most exciting thing that happened was to see the male attach the camera as if he was telling me he wanted some privacy.
People canoeing past the house got in on the story. Some kids gave them the name Harry and Megan as the royal wedding had just happened. The happy couple were largely unflustered by the attention they were receiving but hated the chickens as they strode past rapidly to get to the goodies in the garden. Such was the animosity between the swans and the chickens that one of them was attacked and I thought I had to put it down. It appeared to have had it’s spine damaged. It was laying on its side, legs floppy, but not in any pain (not sure how I would know that anyway). Having lost an entire flock recently to an otter, the cruelties of nature weren’t far from my mind and I thought about simply dispatching it there and then. However, something said I shouldn’t. So I prayed for it. Yes, any of you out there who know the Bible will realise this is not something Jesus spent much time doing. Hey, it was worth a go and would mean I wouldn’t have to see two bits of the same chicken no longer attached to each other, both moving in that long pause until everything became still again.
The chicken recovered. I still have it. In fact, Belinda is one of the most attractive and feisty chickens I have out of the new flock that came from Fresh Start For Hens, a charity that rehomes chickens that have ended their commercial life.
So July 1st, 2018. I noticed on the morning feed that one of the swan eggs is cracked open and a head is poking out. Very exciting!! Little peeps come from its mouth, and Mum kindly stays calm and does what swan mums do naturally. Which is funnily enough, not much. She doesn’t help crack the eggs, peel away any broken bits, she just sits there and provides a dynamic blanket for whatever is going on underneath her. It’s amazing as more swans hatch, her wings spread out to keep them all under her wing. Amazing to see, but does look rather uncomfortable.
It is one of those delights of nature to see a little cygnet poke it’s head out from under a parent’s wing. Anyone witnessing such thing usually coos and ‘awwwsss’ and remains transfixed by the little fluffy thing.
For a few days the cygnets don’t go anywhere. Even when mum pops in for a dip, the cygnets stay in the nest providing a great view of the days old things. I sat for hours watching them. They seemed to ignore me being there. It reminded me of the time I watched my son he was tiny. It was simply beautiful. I knew the cygnets would be swimming soon, so slept overnight in my boat anchored in the centre of the river, with tripod and zoom lense focussed on the arrivals. Unfortunately, I slept so deeply that I missed the cygnets first dip in the river by only a few seconds. They all tumbled in following Mum’s call as I was fumbling with the camera turning it on. Their somersaulting entrance into the river down the bank didn’t fluster anyone. They just floated the right way up and got on with swimming.
Occasionally the cygnets would hop aboard one of the parents. Until you know this, there’s a little thing that alarms you to not being able to see all the babies. Oh no, has Mr Pikey or Dodgey the Otter had a swan snack? Fortunately, when you see a head or leg poking out of a parental feather you soon realise there’s nothing to worry about.
For about a week the family came back to the birthplace. Mum and Dad as feisty as ever hissing at the chickens, whilst the young swans go about learning the skills of swandome.
Then one day they were gone. They seemed to be going further and further away from the nest, and then not coming back at all. So I thought, that was it. Great to have seen, and perhaps one day one of the swans would come back and do it all again. For the next week I would catch sight of them when I took the dogs out for a run – then nothing. Days, then a week past and not a siting at all. Somehow I was comforted by the thought that this is what swans do.I had no idea when a cygnet looked like a swan, got a job, and flew to somewhere else to raise their own family.
Sadly, this was optimism on my part. Harry and Megan returned and continued their pre-family behaviour of walking up to the front door and asking for their breakfast. There were no cygnets with them. They would have been just over 2 weeks old. I am writing this on the 18th July.
It may have been a coincidence, but this coincided with two stories that offered hope and sadness. The good story was a friend telling me about a family of swans who had a clutch of 3 eggs which gave rise to three cygnets. Somewhere along the line, she adopted 4 others and had a family of 7. Maybe Megan wasn’t an experienced Mother (this was her first batch) and let them go to a more experienced Mum.
The other friend had showed me some picture of some otters playing by a nearby bridge, just 100m away from where Megan and Harry hatched their eggs. Knowing what predators otters can be, perhaps they had taken the cygnets. Sadly, it was the most likely thing to have happened.
I was sad to think that after all the joy of seeing them raised that an otter would have killed them all. That’s what nature does. It is cruel. However, having Megan and Harry back in the garden is great. My dogs keep well clear and look forward to the next Amazon delivery driver who can’t deliver the parcel but leaves a note saying “Could not deliver due to angry swan”. Yes, that has happened..