I had no idea that our state has native swans, until a year ago when the Little Man and I drove north for the Snow Goose Festival. Silly me, I thought the day would be about geese, but hopefully not about snow. LM thought the day would be about eating out for lunch.
I thought swans were for castle moats, fairy tales, and ballet.
I might not have known about the swans because for a long while there weren’t very many. Less than 100 breeding Trumpeter Swans remained by the early 1900s, due to overhunting. Factor in DDT and lead ammunition, and things looked more grim for our native swans than for a ballerina who’d eaten Big Macs all winter.
Today there are 25,000 swans in our area, migrating through and overwintering, but they’re not in the clear: 2,200 swans died from lead poisoning from 1999-2009. With my rusty math skills, that’s nearly 9% of our swan population.
The swans’ survival against such terrible odds seemed unlikely and remains tenuous.
I often feel the same. We barely made it as a family that first year, and, like the swans, only survived with the support of loved ones and professionals and neighbors. And now the Little Man is thirteen, a dreadful age where it seems his primary goal is not to graduate 8th grade math but to provoke his dad and me; to test, test, and test some more that we won’t finally give up on him; to push us to the limit where we finally hand him a knapsack and tell him to head east until he hits the other side of the continent, so that he can say, “I knew it all along;” when what he is trying hardest to do is really the last thing he wants.
“I’m running away!” he yells. “I’ll be home for breakfast.”
That’s not quite how it works, my confused not-so-little one.
Some days I do feel like giving up, and I fondle my American Express card, considering that I live close to the cruise ship dock and could migrate to sunnier climes. I wonder how to balance communicating to him that we will always be there for him (unless he steals more of my good chocolate) with teaching him that his future life partners won’t stick around if he doesn’t treat them well.
Swans are social animals. They live and mate in family groups and keep the same mate for a lifetime.
Both the male and female parents lose flight feathers as the babies hatch, so they are unable to fly while the cygnets are young.
How could I not relate to parent swans stuck in the mud with their young, unable to take off and soar as they used to? Yet, all they want is for their babies to survive the randomly sprayed poison? And they too want to survive the randomly sprayed poison that on bad days seems like it’s coming from their own progeny, with total disregard for what falls from the sky in the crossfire.
After the swan lecture, the Little Man and I set off with our maps into the fallow daffodil and tulip fields. If I had never in all my 27 years in Washington State seen a single swan, how on earth was I going to find them that day? While driving a junior high schooler who, for all his interest in birds, really just wanted pie for lunch?
And then there they were. White confetti sprinkled everywhere.
Trumpeter swans, though the largest waterfowl in the world, toot on plastic bugles rather than blow on Louis Armstrong cornets. Their cartoon sound resembles a traffic jam of toy cars driven by Barbies late for their manicures.
They were there all along, more and more with each passing year, right under our noses. How had we missed them? Sometimes, until you know it’s there, you just can’t see it—like a parent’s ceaseless love. Though all you can see is them saying “no” and getting in the way of what you think you want, all they are trying to do is to steer you away from the lead.
A field of tooting, waddling swans! Magic. One of those miraculous, unpredictable moments that carry you through all of the ugly ones. Where I can look back to that perfect day, with blobs of white frosting in bright fields, with happy cartoon noises in the natural world. Where everything went right. I even managed to parallel park.
A friend of ours once lived in a castle, with a moat, which contained a pair of swans. One day the female got a fish hook caught in her mouth. The male cried and cried, for three days, in anguish, and in an attempt to summon help, it seemed. Our friend says it was heartrending, the most awful sound he’d ever heard. Yet this was Europe and so it was a mute swan, which really are mute. How does it manage to make such a cry, then, when grieving?
I can imagine making that sound if something ever happened to my cygnet or my mate.
A year later, our northern river deltas are again full of swans. It looks like we’re growing swans instead of tulips and daffodils. Field after field after field of swans.
Juvenile swans are grey. Which is about right for my own juvenile and his choice of wearing dirty favorites over clean anything.
“When you see a lot of grey swans in the field, that means it was a good year for them,” our teacher told us. “That’s lots of surviving young from last year. Still with their parents.”
The future remains hopeful for swans.
And if the swans can make it, so can we. We’re just going to make a lot more noise.
* * * * *
All photos by Jennifer D. Munro. If they’re any good, it’s purely by accident.