Post by Ursuline’s Interim Dean of Arts & Sciences, Sarah Preston, Ph.D.
On February 4, 2016 Ursuline was visited by a pair of swans. I happened to notice them just before 3pm as I looked out my office window. I immediately grabbed my office neighbor, Sr. Elaine Berkopec, who grabbed her binoculars and came to look. No one I talked to remembers ever seeing swans here before.
For most people a swan is a swan and they are content to simply leave it at that. For others, a swan sighting has spiritual significance. Sr. Diane Therese Pinchot informed me that in Native American culture the swan as a totem animal represents intuition, femininity and calm in the midst of change. For me, as a birder and scientist, I needed to know what kind of swans they were. There are four species of swans that can be found in North America: Mute Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, and Whooper Swan. Whooper Swans are only found in Alaska, so they can be ruled out. Tundra Swans migrate through Ohio in large numbers in the spring and fall. Trumpeter Swans, once nearly extinct in the 1930s due to hunting and the draining of marshes, have rebounded thanks to reintroduction programs and the conservation of wetlands including Ohio’s own Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
It is fairly easy to distinguish the Mute Swan from the other two possibilities. Their beaks are mostly orange, while the Tundra and Trumpeter Swans have a black beak with a small yellow spot near the eye and a completely black beak, respectively. The Mute Swan is also the only one of the three species with a graceful, curved neck. Mute Swans, not native to North America, were introduced from Europe as domestic pond dwellers and descendants of escapees have established breeding populations. An aggressive species, the Mute Swan is considered to be invasive and competes with native swans for nest sites. The eradication of Mute Swans from certain areas in Ohio is the source of much controversy. I can attest to the Mute Swan’s hostile nature since, growing up, my family briefly bred Mute Swans and, while they were nesting and raising the cygnets, you couldn’t go anywhere near the pond without a broom for protection.
Looking at our visitors with binoculars, I could tell that the beaks were black with no orange and the necks were straight. This means that they were native, wild swans! My first instinct was to ID them as Trumpeter Swans since I did not see any yellow near the eye, but as any good scientist knows, a lack of evidence is not really conclusive. So later that night, I posted the best picture that June Gracyk took to the “Facebook Bird ID Group of the World” and asked for the experts to weigh in. James Coe commented, “That’s a tough photo, but from what I can make out of the beak size and shape, and the position of the eye, relative to the beak, I’d say they are Tundra. A better photo would surely be more definitive.”
The next morning I had intended to bring my camera in the hopes of getting a better picture of them, if they were still there, but I had completely forgotten about it until I was running on the treadmill in the fitness room facing the lake. They must have been on the far side because I didn’t see them for a while and then suddenly there they were: taking off, flying directly over the building. So the ID will remain a mystery and I’m not going to agonize over it too much. There’s a reason why there’s a Trumpeter/Tundra Swan entry on ebird.org and that’s what I’ll end up reporting them as.