Country diary: the swan who sits on silence


For too many weeks people have stopped at the river bend to look. Dog walkers stay their charges on impatient leads, little children are thrust forward to witness the public exhibition of what is most often a concealed act.

The female swan opens one eye. A body-fit for her nest bowl, she has all the compactness of a perfect vacuum cleaner, ungovernable hose laid neatly in on itself, working paddles tucked away under down. Most days, her beak is buried in feathers.

In her choice of nest site, she could have elected for discretion and privacy, but she built where the path runs closest to the river, with only two metres and iron railings separating her from human traffic.

She is resting, but not at rest, as the days, weeks, months tick by. Hers is an external gestation, shell on bare skin swollen against her belly, her warmth their warmth. And she is well past her due date. The swan incubation period is given by the near-infallible British Trust for Ornithology as 34 to 45 days, but I saw the promise of five eggs nestling in the bowl at dawn on a frost-bitten March day. Something has gone wrong.

Sculling listlessly in the water nearby, the swan’s mate is the spare parent in this maternity ward. Here today, absent most other days when I visit. He watches the female raise a piece of vegetation in her bill and move it from A to B, the same piece that yesterday she moved from B to A. He never plays any part in this pointless nest maintenance, nor does he incubate the eggs. In his half-vigil, the male trusts to his mate’s ears to catch sounds of life in the eggs beneath her body.

It may be that she laid a replacement clutch, or it may be that she is sitting on silence. Either way, her period of confinement has stretched through the full length of spring.

Feathers frayed, hunger eating at her, but seemingly not at her resolve, the swan sits on. The time cannot be far away when hatching or abandonment of a failed nest will save her from starvation.


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