Swans star in encore performance at Palace of Fine Arts

The one-week-old cygnets on parade (photo: B. mason)

Last year, Marina neighbors celebrated the arrival of the first offspring from Blanche and Blue Boy, the newest swan couple to take up residence on the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon. Though six eggs were laid, only one cygnet hatched on Memorial Day 2011. The new baby was named Marta and was soon a neighborhood sensation. Sadly though, the tale was written by Mother Nature, not Mother Goose, and the baby disappeared just two weeks later, the victim of a natural predator.

In an encore performance, Blanche and Blue Boy laid six eggs again this spring. The couple chose a more private site for their nest this year, locating it on the island at the north end of the pond instead of by the side of a busy public pathway. Be it the nest’s seclusion or more experience for the pair, six healthy cygnets hatched on May 17. One day later, the proud family parade could be seen navigating across the water for the first time.

The S.F. Recreation and Park Department oversees the Palace of Fine Arts, and general manager Phil Ginsberg said, “We are thrilled to have six new members joining our S.F. Rec and Park family!”

Long-time volunteer swan caretakers Gayle Hagerty and Judy Wilkes are equally thrilled. After last year’s loss, they are happy that all of the eggs made it to maturity and that the six cygnets are thriving so far.

Of course, the youngsters still face natural dangers from predators and the elements, as all wild animals do. But the biggest danger to them may be their own popularity. Buses disgorge hundreds of tourists daily at the Palace, and many people are getting too close to the birds in an attempt for that perfect photo op.

“We hope people will come to enjoy viewing the cygnets, but really want people to stay at least 20 feet away for both their and the swans’ safety,” says Hagerty. “Blanche and especially Blue Boy are still very protective, and we don’t want to see anyone hurt by the adults protecting their babies.”

Likewise, Hagerty hopes that people will avoid the urge to feed the babies until they are much older. Overeating – especially starchy foods like corn or bread – can put them in danger of having their upper bodies grow too fast for their developing legs to support, which could result in permanent leg deformities.

The fuzzy grey cygnets will stay close to their parents until probably September or October, when the parents will start to push them away once they have gained the skills to support themselves. At that time, the caretakers will be able to remove the young swans for DNA tests to identify their sex.

Hagerty hopes they will be able to leave two females to share the lagoon with Blanche and Blue Boy. “The lagoon isn’t large enough to support eight adult swans, so at most two will be selected to remain,” she says. “As family members, two additional females are more likely to live peacefully with the existing pair.”

And as mute swans mate for life, there should be no danger of Blue Boy pairing up with one of his own daughters as long as Blanche is alive.

Joining the Palace’s off-spring parade this year is Marilyn the duck, who hatched 11 ducklings in early May. Ten were still at her side by the end of the month, which may be a lagoon record.

So enjoy this year’s feathered baby pageant – from a respectful distance, of course.

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