I have been watching swan family dynamics with interest over the last week or so. This particular pair had two nests washed out earlier in the year until they realised that the canal might be less prone to flooding than the nearby river. So on their third attempt they have succeeded in rearing four healthy and robust cygnets. To protect them from being attacked by their parents, their feathers remain grey until they are fully grown, the appearance of white feathers seeming to trigger an aggressive response and the cygnets are then chased away when they are ready to fend for themselves. However, the parents of "our" swan family seem divided in opinion as to whether the cygnets are ready to leave and continue with the next stage of their development into independant adults.
The cob has been steadily losing interest for quite some weeks now - he seems to need a lot of "me time" while the rest of the family are content to drift along nibbling reeds and harrassing boaters for bread. On Sunday we stopped and watched as the pen and all four cygnets stood at the top of the slipway, combing their feathers through and shaking out the loose ones until they stood on a soft downy white and grey carpet. We watched as they stretched out long, beautiful wings each with a full set of perfect flight feathers. Just a few weeks ago, their wings were short, stubby and downy. We realised we were standing quite close to these birds and no warning grunts or hisses were forthcoming - several of the cygnets being bigger than their mother and they looked more like her minders than her offspring.
Next day, Dad had returned but there were only three cygnets. I was very worried about the missing one, imagining all sorts of things that could have happened until I noticed how aggressive the cob was being towards the remaining cygnets, and how irritable they all were with each other. Their feathers are no longer solid grey and some white is beginning to show through.Then the three became two and two became one. Yesterday morning an adult swan and a mottled juvenile were hanging around near the boat. Suddenly the adult snorted and made off very swiftly, after a while the juvenile followed - much to the disgust of the parent bird. It occurred to me that we were perhaps supposed to feed the cygnet and cause a distraction so the parent could get away. Just after sunset the same day two adults and three cygnets came visiting. Having watched the behaviour of the adult birds over several days, it seems that Dad is busy driving the young away, while Mum is rounding them up and bringing them together again. It seems that she doesn't want to let go of them, just yet.