Cornwall - April 7, 2012 - As the World and Canada celebrates the 2012 Diamond Jubilee anniversary of the 60 year reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Canada also has something else to celebrate in the relationship to Her Majesty The Queen. Historically, 45 years ago in 1967, Her Majesty presented six pairs of royal mute swans to the City of Ottawa to commemorate Her Royal Highness' visit to the capital during Canada's Centennial year. Locally, Joan Fougere of Lunenburg, Ontario is fortunate to own a pair of beautiful royal mute swans - descendants of those original six pairs of royal mute swans. Eleven photographs of Joan Fougere's royal mute swans are featured in this article.
Royal mute swans are very distinctive. They have a black-knobbed orange bill which curves down. They tend to swim with an "S" shaped curvature to the neck, and their wings are often arched over the back in an angelic fashion.
Joan Fougere provided this writer with a wonderful interview, and I wish to share it with you. Right off the top, Joan emphasized, "Royal mute swans are not native to Canada, so through Her Majesty's wonderful gift, it was the only way the royal mute swans came to Canada."
Joan's royal mute swans (a female and a male which look almost identical) are a very important annual attraction for the residents of South Stormont Township, as well as thousands of summer visitors to the area. In fact, locals are so proud the Fougere family have been the entrusted keepers of such elegant swans, the residents in turn keep a close watch on them not only for their viewing pleasure, but to make sure harm never comes anywhere near them.
The two royal mute swans reside at the Fougere residence, a very picturesque property purchased back in 1991, which is located west of Long Sault, Ontario on the Wales Road, just north of Trans Canada highway 401. An enormous spring fed pond is along the roadside, and the lovely home is setback from the road overlooking the pond. It is so serene; a paradise for the Fougere family to be able to sit in their home, and watch their magnificent royal mute swans swimming along the shoreline of the pond or basking in the sun on the bright green lawn.
Joan commented, "Royal mute swans are a controlled species in Canada. They are regulated, and must be kept in captivity. The normal lifespan for royal mute swans when they are kept in captivity is approximately 25 years."
Amazingly, the female swan is 29 years old. The male is 6 years old, who just happens to be an offspring from the female. Over the 21 years that Joan has owned royal mute swans; her female has been bred to three different males including her own son producing offspring from each mating. Royal mute swans definitely do not select one mate for life.
Joan Fougere points out, "It isn't easy keeping such regal birds. A special permit is required to keep them in Canada called Aviculture, which is issued by the Canadian Wildlife Service. The permit is renewed annually and each year a form must be submitted to the Canadian Wildlife Service reporting the activities of the swans, for example, a royal mute swan owner must account for the number of eggs laid, the number of cygnets hatched, as well as the number of birds disposed of (sold) or eggs destroyed." Part of obtaining a permit is to confirm the requirements are being fulfilled for a proper habitat for the swans, and another requirement would be providing fencing so the swans don't journey onto the roadway. The Canadian Wildlife Service and Game Wardens can inspect the swans and the property to make sure the habitat remains suitable.
I asked Joan, "What responsibilities go along with having royal mute swan cygnets"? She said any cygnets that are born must be captured before they are 8 days old, and their wings must be pinioned so they can't fly from destination to destination. The term pinioned means taking one wing and cutting it, which renders the bird flightless. The cut portion will not mend itself back to normal. As far as diet goes, the cygnets drink water, and both parents provide them with vegetation from the bottom of the pond which is placed in front of the cygnets.
That train of thought brought me to ask, "What about diet for the adult swans"? Joan said the mature swans must have drinking water every day. During the spring, summer, and fall months they are kept outside to roam freely on her property so they eat grass, and while in the pond they feed off the vegetation and algae on the bottom of the pond. Joan added, "And we also feed them a bit of whole corn as a supplement."
With the onset of spring, it is a natural instinct to mate. The male is the actual nest builder who constructs two or three nests around the pond. Only one nest is actually used for laying eggs, but the others serve as a possible diversion for potential predators. The favourite location for nesting is on a small island in the pond. This writer recalls photographing them one day as the nest was being built on that island. As the male stood in the center of the nest, he very carefully and precisely placed wads of grass around the edges of the nest; grass that the nearby female clipped off the lawn with her bill and passed it to him. One of the photographs shows this effort taking place.
Joan confirmed, "The male has already built a nest this spring, but it is a little early yet for mating as the female isn't showing much interest in the male yet." Although the pair did have offspring at one point years ago, the female may have outlived her reproductiveness with her advancing age, but time will tell on that one!
By mid-April, it normally is a frantic time for both the male and female with mating rituals taking place. After that, the female would lay her eggs. During the mating season, the male is very protective. He defends his property and his female, and he will charge after giving several advance warnings. One of the warnings is spreading his wings and running across the water as seen in one of the photographs. He will perform a dance in the water raising his head high with his wings spread holding himself elevated on the water, and he makes loud snorting noises. One photograph illustrates the male performing his dance. The courtship dance is something similar, when both the male and female swans do the dance together, mirroring each other.
It takes about one week from the time the male makes a nest until the eggs are laid and the female sits on them. The eggs are never left unattended. Yes, Joan underlines the fact that it is the female who bears the brunt of laying six to eight eggs the size of large mangos, and she also sits on the nest incubating the eggs from four to six weeks. The female rarely eats anything during the time of egg incubation, but she does need to drink water. If the female leaves the nest for a very short time, the male will sit on the eggs briefly, but it is rare. The female can lose a lot of weight over these weeks.
Both the female and male are maintenance workers on the nest, a job that can be constant. Interestingly, Joan says, "The female places a stick (twig) near the nest which serves as a marker for the placement of the eggs in the nest. The female moves the marker to keep track of the way she turns the eggs during incubation. When the eggs are first laid, they are white, but as the female keeps turning the eggs so many times, they turn a darker colour wearing the white colour off the egg. The same stick is used year after year."
The Fougere family has sold some of the offspring produced over the years, singling out that one went to New Brunswick, and another went to the Kingston, Ontario area; but in more recent years they have removed the eggs from the nest thirty days after they were laid. If the eggs were removed prior to thirty days, the female might lay another set of eggs.
I asked, "What is the reason for removing the eggs?" She mentioned they really don't want offspring because the female is well beyond her prime, and they would have to sell the offspring to other permit holders. If that were the case, the wings would have to be pinioned so they couldn't fly off, and the breeding male would eventually turn on the cygnets to drive them away, and the young ones would be pretty defenceless with their wings pinioned. If youngsters are born in captivity, they must remain in captivity, but the swan's instinct is to leave the nest, grow up fast, and fly away to start their own life. Certainly it is a very territorial situation, and an astute judgement on the part of the Fougere family.
Joan chuckles and says, "Royal mute swans chase Canada geese away. The two species do not get along, so we never have to worry about Canada Geese flying into the pond." One photograph displays the male royal mute swan in hot pursuit of a cormorant that invaded the pond.
In late fall, when the pond is almost frozen over, the royal mute swans are housed in a small barn with an indoor and outdoor coop. Their diet during the winter months consists of whole corn, turkey grower, and fresh water daily. They must wait until spring to enjoy swimming in the water again.
The Fougere family must be applauded for their perseverance in being such dedicated keepers of the historical royal mute swans.
In summary, Joan Fougere says, "The royal mute swans are very special. They are a big part of our lives, and certainly a cherished part of our family. They are beautiful, and graceful. They give us much pleasure, and we love them dearly."
The angelic look of a royal mute swan with wing feathers elevated over the back
The royal mute swan often swims with an "S" shaped curvature of the neck
The male royal mute swan gives a warning by running across the water with wings spread
The male royal mute swan dances
The male royal mute swan (left) builds the nest while the female picks grass for the male
Royal mute swan enjoys the sun on a spring day
Royal mute swan swims gracefully
The male royal mute swan chases a cormorant who invaded the pond
Royal mute swan swims fast
Royal mute swan swims leisurely