Wild About Utah: Swans

Mar 29, 2021

Tundra swans.
Credit Mary Heers

A few months ago, I was driving a car on an interstate road trip when a picture of a coffee cup suddenly appeared on my dashboard with the question, "Need a rest?" I was a little startled to suddenly be getting questions from my car, but I must admit I felt a surge of relief when a large truck stop soon came into view. 

I can imagine that the thousands of tundra swans following their traditional migration route must feel the same sense of relief when the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge comes into view. Below them lie 74,000 acres of wetlands where the Bear River flows into the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake. Plenty of room, plenty of fresh water, and plenty of food. It's hidden from view, but the swans know it’s there. Growing in the muddy bottom of the shallow water is a marvelous buffet of the tundra swan's favorite food: pondweed.

 

In early March, when I heard the swans had started to arrive, I headed right over. Ice was just beginning to melt and the first arrivals were sitting on the water and standing around on the ice. Of course, I cringed to think about standing around on ice in bare feet, but these swans seemed perfectly content. They had already flown over 600 miles and had another 2,000 to go to get to their nesting grounds in the Alaska tundra. This was their time to rest and refuel. People who study the biology of swans tell us that eating pondweed is pretty effortless: the swan dips its flexible, three-foot neck into the water, locates a choice plant with the help of an extra underwater eyelid, and takes a bite. No need to surface; the swan swallows underwater. No need to chew; its gizzard will grind the cellulose into a digestible pulp.

 

Quite unexpectedly, I ran across some other swans the next day who had left the main migratory route and were taking the backroads of Fairview, Idaho to forage across the farmer's fields where I had gone to visit a friend. "Corn," she said. "They come every year." 

 

Inevitably some corn is left behind by the harvesting machines and these swans were more than happy to clean up the spills. But at six o'clock they would lift off and fly to a small stretch of open water by the Fairview Cemetery where they could safely spend the night.

 

I hightailed it to the cemetery, sat down by the water's edge, and made myself as small as possible. I waited. Soon the sky filled with incoming swans, some in pairs, some in small groups. They flew in over me so low I could hear the thump of their wings beating and the Whirrzz of the wind through their wing feathers. At the last minute they lowered their large black feet and skidded to a splashy stop The water was soon thick with swans, but these excellent aviators, weighing over 20 lbs and with a wingspan of six to seven to feet, skillfully landed in an open space.

 

Like many people, I first heard about swans when I read “The Ugly Duckling.” Hans Christian Anderson spent a year writing this story in 1842. Later in life, when people asked him why he never wrote an autobiography, he said he already had when he wrote The Ugly Duckling. His message was clear: bullying a youngster just because he looks different is cruel. But the suffering of the young swan as he spent his first winter miserably cold and alone did not preclude a happy ending. Remembering this story is especially poignant today as we are emerging from our own winter of social isolation, and stepping into spring with high hopes for happier, healthier days.