I happened upon two swans…ahem… “cygnet-making” on the Mill Pond the other day. Let’s just say I was very glad I wasn’t a swan. At least, not a female one. If I was one, I’d be lobbying for a snorkel mask.
It reminded me that I also once had the dubious honour of seeing peacocks mating on a safari in Sri Lanka. The guide was duly excited; evidently this was a rare sighting. It was indeed a sight to behold and a feat of tessellation. All those feathers.
Nature, eh? Constantly stopping us in our tracks.
What intrigued me most about the swan sex though (I can call it that now we’ve passed the awkward first mention), was that afterwards they performed an elaborate sort of mirroring display which we could only assume was a mating ritual.
One swan would gently dip its head under the surface of the water, then bring it back out and begin preening its body while its partner would then dip its head under and mirror the preening. Occasionally one of them stretched up its neck and there was tail-feather-shaking to rival Tina Turner.
It was really very beautiful and I absolutely understood how Tchaikovsky was inspired to pen ‘Swan Lake’.
It confused me though, as I would’ve thought they’d have done all of that before the big event, rather than afterwards. It was the swan equivalent of whispering post-coital sweet nothings – I guess the guy feels he’s got some making up to do after dunking the girl underwater until he’s finished the job.
This vision stuck in my head. I’ve since felt the need to Google it (with some trepidation).
My swans were Mute Swans but they were not silent in going about their business. There was quiet squeaking, a bit of soft hissing and the odd grunt. Evidently it’s a myth that they only ‘sing’ when they’re dying (the fabled ‘swan song’).
Apparently, February is quite early for swans to start breeding but not unheard of. It means they’ll lay their eggs in March and then the cygnets will hatch in April.
Their mating ritual can last anything from moments up to a whole hour! And they do the mirroring and preening thing before and after the deed itself. So, next time you see a pair of swans doing that picture-perfect heart-shaped necks thing…hang around for a bit and see if you would support the lobby for snorkels.
Chatting with my family about this made us realise that we’ve seen quite a few things we weren’t expecting in the natural world during our three Covid-19 lockdowns. Things we probably wouldn’t have seen if everyone and everything had been going about life ‘normally’, even though we have always been (forgive the double entendre), outdoor lovers.
We watched a pair of nuthatches who’d nested in a tree on our camping field – we were only there because there was no-one staying in our safari tent so we thought we’d be ‘on holiday’ at home last Easter weekend!
I saw my first otter on a beach in December, presumably because there was barely anyone around; a fox in the sand dunes and countless double rainbows – the widest and brightest I’ve ever seen. This perhaps because we have been out walking every day, whatever the weather, because it’s been essential for our sanity like never before.
It’s a privilege to catch sight of these rather ordinary events which seem to us extraordinary because we’re not often looking.
And all this breeding that’s beginning to take place in earnest is the surest of signs that spring is on its way after the longest of winters.
** By bizarre coincidence, just as I was finishing this blog, I witnessed for the first time our son’s two corn snakes – who we thought were both boys until one of them laid eggs during the first lockdown – in the tussle of mating ecstasy. This was no Swan Lake. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty compelling.
With all this copulation in front of our very eyes, and with our daily lockdown walks continuing into the Spring, I’m kind of thankful for our isolated, rural existence. We only have one human near-neighbour and, mercifully, he lives on his own.
In case you want to learn more about swans, this is a brilliant website: www.swanlife.com
There’s even a bit about swans busking. I enjoyed a whimsical image of a swan on an upturned food tub twanging a banjo with a webbed foot and playing Piano Man on the harmonica. But no, it’s the rearing, wing-spreading and flapping they do when you’re not wanted. Who knew?!