Feathered tenant turns heads at retirement home

April 21, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

When residents of the Charlestown Retirement Community saw the big black bird with the red bill swimming quietly among the wild ducks on their year-old pond, they could hardly believe their eyes.

Some of the more enthusiastic bird-watchers among them had traveled Down Under to see Australian black swans in their native habitat, and here was one of the exotic creatures paddling in their back yard in Catonsville.

The swan, nicknamed Charlestown Charlie though its sex is unknown, has no visible identification bands or markers, said Charlestown spokeswoman Elizabeth Malis.

"This one is obviously someone's pet that got away," said Steven Sarro, senior bird keeper at the Baltimore Zoo, which has none of the birds.

He warned the inexperienced to stay away from it. "Black swans can be aggressive, and they are nothing to mess with," he said.

Cygnus airatus, as Australian black swan is known, is native to Australia and New Zealand. The birds are bred in captivity and are popular in private waterfowl collections in the United States, Mr. Sarro said.

Captive birds usually are "pinioned," a surgical procedure that removes their flight feathers when they are 2 to 3 days old so they will remain earthbound.

In some cases, however, feathers of one wing are clipped to keep the birds off balance and grounded. Occasionally, owners forget that the birds molt, and new feather growth can enable them to take off and escape, Mr. Sarro said.

The last sighting of a black swan in the region occurred last summer at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia. "This might be the same one, but I doubt it."

Nancy Hahn, a waterfowl breeder and editor of the Mid-Atlantic Waterfowl Association's newsletter, said that from the description, the Charlestown swan could be at least 2 years old.

"The bird is probably friendly," Ms. Hahn said. She has two breeding pairs, she said, noting that black swans become most aggressive during mating season and when they have young to protect.

Her latest brood of cygnets was born in a snowbank in last month's blizzard, she said.

"It will probably stay because they don't mind staying alone," Ms. Hahn said of the new Charlestown resident.

Mr. Sarro said the swans subsist on grains, vegetation and water plants. If the swan becomes a Charlestown pet, Ms. Hahn recommended that a turkey "finisher" feed with no medication be placed in a small pan at the water's edge.

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