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 Created: 03/17/03


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Merlin, My Protector

March 17, 2003 – Spring has sprung down here in the deep south. An early spell of balmy weather has pushed the forsythia, daffodils and Japanese magnolias into full bloom. The grass is turning green again. Here at our house, all the pear, crabapple, and cherry trees are poised to open.

We usually think of spring as a season of renewal, but if you happen to live near a Mute swan, spring can be a season of terror. Last Sunday I was viciously attacked by our four-year-old Mute swan, Little Big. Breeding season has arrived, and this young swan – who has just reached adulthood – is proving to be every bit as aggressive as was his daddy, the infamous Mr. Big.

Mute Swan Psychology 101
Before I describe how I narrowly escaped death at the hands (wings) of Little Big, I will give you a "short-course" on the Mute swan.

Do not allow yourself to be seduced by their quiet beauty. As the name suggests, mute swans are usually silent, but not always... a Mute will often hiss and snort when angry. They have foul, fowl tempers, and they are formidable creatures. Adult Mutes usually weigh around 40 pounds and have wingspans of 7 to 8 feet. They reach sexual maturity in their third year and they can live, with proper care, for twenty years. During breeding season they establish large territories of up to 25 acres, fully encompassing a small body of water and its surrounding shoreline. (Our pond is 8 acres.) The breeding season runs from early March through July, sometimes into August. During this time, the Mute will aggressively defend his domain, particularly the area closest to the nest, and he will attempt to drive out any creature that approaches. ("Anger management" is definitely not part of a breeding Mute's vocabulary.) Mute swans have been known to attack other waterfowl, large and small predators, dogs, and people. It is important to understand that the most dangerous part of a mute swan is not, as one would expect, his beak. His primary weapon – and a very dangerous one – is his wing, which he uses to repeatedly "club" his victim with a great deal of force. Blows from a Mute can maim a large predator, seriously injure a child, or break a person's arm. Reportedly, back in 1982, an Indiana fisherman was killed after his boat was capsized by an angry Mute. He was then beaten about the head until he drowned. [Audubon, vol. 99, no. 6.]

The Ambush
Last Sunday's attack began while I was taking pictures in the front yard, accompanied by my 8-year-old Dane, Merlin. As I turned to walk back toward the house, Little Big leapt out of the pond and rushed me from behind. He grabbed onto my jacket with his beak and began ferociously beating me about the legs with his wings. I tried to get away, but could not. Little Big had attached himself to me. All I could see was a flurry of white, and all I could hear was the sound of my own screams as those big white wings bashed my legs again and again. I was afraid to extend my arms for fear Little Big would break them. Then suddenly it was over. Miraculously, Merlin – my dear, sweet, white-faced boy – had inserted himself between us. The swan headed back to the water and Merlin and I retreated to the house. Merlin was completely unscathed, thank goodness. I was not so lucky. My legs hurt and I watched in horror over the next several hours as giant purple bruises developed up and down my legs. In all, I was left with ten angry welts, some as large as the palm of my hand. It was not a pretty sight.

What to do?
Clearly we have to do something about this. If Little Big was a person, I would have called the police. No doubt he'd be in jail right now awaiting arraignment on assault and battery charges. And because Little Big attacks without provocation, I doubt he'd be let out on bond anytime soon.

Unfortunately, we can't send our renegade swan to the county jail, so we need to find him a new home in a more strictly controlled environment. And we need to do that as soon as possible, because Little Big will become even more aggressive after his mate starts laying her eggs and sitting on the nest. He attacked us again just the other evening while we were on the dock. He literally bounced up in the water, reached over the edge of the dock with one of his giant wings, and clubbed my husband on his wrist. Then he swam off, hissing.

We are much more careful now when we go anywhere near the water. We make sure we have a defensive weapon such as a long sturdy tree branch or a broom handle. Little Big is not a stupid bird; when he sees us with a pole, he stays just out of reach. So for now, we're all managing to get along. Just barely.

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