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Palace swans ‘fly’ the coop

Four juvenile swans relocated for lagoon harmony
Blue Boy and Blanche (in front) will continue to share the Palace Lagoon with just two of their offspring – for now Photo: c. beckman

Four of the Palace of Fine Arts’ six juvenile swans were relocated in mid-October to help make sure the lagoon remains a harmonious environment for its residents.

Gayle Hagerty and Judy Whilt, longtime swan caretakers, helped coax the young birds out of the water and into a waiting transport vehicle.

“After the first one was loaded in, Gayle just picked up the remaining three and put them in the truck,” said Whilt. “It all went very smoothly.”

“We would like to have two daughters and the parents [on the lagoon],” said Hagerty. “That has always worked well for us.”

Mute swans often live 20 to 30 years. Blanche is 16 and Blue Boy is just 2 years old, which could mean several more years of successful nesting.

“The reason we took them off is simple math: six cygnets a year for five years equals 32 birds on the lagoon,” said Hagerty. “So we have to manage the number of birds there, and it’s better for these birds to be relocated at a younger age.”

Though some fans raised concerns over splitting up the family, it is no different from what would happen in a wild flock. According to the Ohio Ornithological Society, “Unlike other species of swans, mute swan families normally break up during late fall.” Even if offspring remained through the winter, the parents would drive them away during spring nesting.

Determining the gender of swans by physical examination is difficult, so Hagerty and Whilt made their best estimate as to which were females. “We thought that we had five females and one male,” said Whilt.

But it may be the other way around. After running DNA tests on the relocated swans, all four turned out to be male. DNA tests will now be run on the two cygnets still on the lagoon, which for now are named Zelda and Zoe. But if it should turn out the two are both males, they would most likely also be removed next spring.

“In the past, we had a father and a son on the pond, and until the son nested it wasn’t a problem. But that problem resulted in the father being killed,” said Hagerty. “The other issue would be that having three aggressive male birds on the lagoon is not optimal for the amount of people that come through there.”

A breeding pair will vigorously defend its territory – generally 4 to 10 acres in size – from other swans, and males can be especially aggressive in defense of a nesting site. Mute swans can be formidable adversaries for predators as large as a coyote, and attacks on humans have been documented. Blue Boy’s own sister had to be removed from the lagoon in June 2011 after she was repeatedly attacked during nesting season.

Considered “non-native and nuisance terrestrial vertebrates” by the Cali-fornia Department of Fish and Game, mute swans are a controlled exotic species. Controls include preventing migration, which also prevents any natural family dispersion.

Adult mute swans will consume 35–43 percent of their weight on a daily basis. That feeding pattern creates another limit on the number of swans that can be sustained at the Palace.

Whether it’s Zelda and Zoe, or Zorba and Zachary, the Palace swans continue to hold court for their devoted fans.

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