Native Birdlife on the Gippsland Lakes (photo by Cath McAloon)
Me and the family of Black Swans
I was fortunate enough to witness a cygnet adoption take place. In September 2011, the Progress Jetty resident Black Swan pair was away at the Paynesville communal nesting site on the Gippsland Lakes so on the 18th another breeding pair, (with five cygnets almost 3 weeks old) arrived and took over the territory temporarily. Later in the afternoon this visiting brood was beside my boat at the jetty enjoying the lettuce, bread and spinach I was giving them. All of a sudden, Dad squawked as a lone cygnet appeared from nowhere. At first, the cygnet tried climbing under mum’s wings but mum said no and after a few failed attempts and mum telling him off, he joined the other cygnets in playing and foraging and the entire brood acted as if he had hatched with them.
Dad may have initially squawked perhaps because he expected the parents to be following behind the stray, (and territorial laws would have been infringed) but there was otherwise no reaction among any of the birds. There were no questions asked, no scrutiny, he was made an instant member of the family and slept under mum’s wings with the others during the nights.
Adopted Orphan (Photo by Patrick Appleton)
There was a strong south-westerly wind blowing and a family with 8 cygnets was moving from the communal nests to Newlands Arm on the day the orphan arrived. That brood I noticed the next day was down to 7 cygnets so I am assuming this is most likely where the orphan came from as they would have passed closely to Progress Jetty on their journey. The cygnet may have fallen off of his mum or dad’s back without them noticing him missing and in the heavy seas he would’ve been exhausted, hence his first priority in finding another mum’s warm wings to rest under. The adopted orphan, ( being at least 2 weeks younger than the other 5 cygnets ) was slightly smaller and slightly browner when they became a family but as the cygnets grew, the differences became quite noticeable which was very handy for me, a budding swan researcher.
Notes from Journal: the orphan has no tail feather growth compared to his older step siblings who have noticeable tail feather growth
Orphan’s Bill Colour by Patrick Appleton
The parents of the brood were very experienced and very friendly and after a month of hand feeding them and earning their trust, the cygnets would sit on my lap, allow me to pick them up, (without too much protest) and study their feather growth (as long as I gave them spinach!). Sometimes they would tap on the hull of my boat at 2am wanting more spinach and on one of those late night visits I later watched them feeding on the tiny fish attracted by the light at the end of the jetty. (Not the usual diet of a herbivore!!)
Orphan in Spinach Queue by Patrick Appleton
Some cygnet adoptions are a common occurrence among black swans during territorial wars if both the parents of each brood are involved in a clash and all the cygnets follow mum and dad to the war zone. Cygnets become lost in the battle and may all join together into one group and/or follow the wrong cygnets back to the wrong parents when things settle down. Sometimes a lost cygnet can be out of luck and is just as likely to be killed as accepted.
Notes from Journal: Aged 35 days, the dark feather growth is showing on their heads except for the orphan who is only 20 days old.
In early November the resident pair returned to Progress Jetty and the brood with the adopted cygnet moved to their usual territory on Raymond Island where I later continued to film and study them. I assumed I’d not see them again after they left Progress Jetty but I found them again 2 weeks later near the Third Parade Jetty while they were devouring the pig face vegetation growing along the island foreshore.
Orphan’s New Tail Feather Growth by Patrick Appleton
As they got nearer to fledgling they became rather shy about me snooping around under their wings trying to expose their private parts on You Tube and they also spent more time on long excursions away from home so mum & dad could later take them away, quickly fly home and hope the kids don’t follow!
Kissing Orphan on my Lap by Patrick Appleton
Not the only Orphan to sit on Me by Patrick Appleton
He Sat on my Chest by Patrick Appleton
Pretty Blue Feather Sheaths by Patrick Appleton
I bumped into two of them a couple of weeks ago. All 5 month old juvenile swans look the same but I could easily identify these two. There are only 6 in the Gippsland lakes that will sit on me and give me a kiss!