Sat Apr 2023

Fighting Swans*

Every now and then, we witness a territorial fight between male swans, with the resident male, or “cob,” defending his turf, or nesting area, against an interloper. Sometimes they fight to a standoff, work out an uneasy truce, and co-exist on the pond. Other times — and this is clearly one of them — the vanquished cob and his mate, the “pen,” decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and move on.

A pair of young Mute Swans took up residence on the pond early this winter, no doubt because it met two prerequisites: a lack of ice, and the absence of other swans. Their small size and slender necks (bottom photo, below) suggest this pen and cob were no more than two and three years old, respectively, and newly mated.

Sometime in mid February, however, the day of reckoning came. The real residents returned after several months’ absence – their usual winter excursion to some unfrozen body of water nearby, possibly a river or an estuary. Older, bigger and more experienced, they evicted the young’uns after a fierce fight.

It’s always hard to be sure of anything about swans, but sometimes a small insight can finally shed light on a big mystery. Hours after the fight, the older swans came by in what I took to be their victory lap (photo opposite)They were completely at ease — serene, is a better word — showing none of the curiosity and excitability I associate with swans new to the pond. Suddenly all became clear: they had been here before; this was home, and they were the defenders.

Sure enough, looking at the fight sequence again, I realized it was the bigger, older swans on the attack, defending their nesting area. Initially, I had trouble telling which was the defending cob, and which the interloper, because both had their neck feathers up — a sign of aggression. The younger pen gave me the clue: her slender neck was plain to see, and she was being chased by the older pen, sporting a thicker neck.

I find swan fights horrific. I watched this one for about six minutes, before the action moved out of sight behind a neighbor’s hedge. Those six minutes seemed like an hour. I was so agitated by the violence in front of me, that I forgot to check my camera settings. As a result, all the shots came out too dark. Fortunately, I was able to lighten them digitally, in the photo editor, but they came out grainy, reminding me of old black-and-white photos that I “pushed” too hard in the darkroom. Perhaps this graininess serves a purpose, albeit unintended, that of heightening the sense of foreboding conveyed by the photos.

The slide show contains twenty-three shots. Some readers may find it overly long and repetitive, but I feel its very length conveys the intensity of the fight, as well as the determination and endurance of the combatants. I shot the sequence from my window in the early morning of February 18, 2012.