Tale of two swans offers glimpse of a happy ending

May 25, 2006|By TYRONE RICHARDSON | TYRONE RICHARDSON,SUN REPORTER

Zach the swan can't seem to catch a break.

The rare trumpling swan has graced a 37-acre lake in Columbia for seven tumultuous years, enduring the loss of his unrequited love interest to a more aggressive male -- and her subsequent slaying by a BB-gun toting teen.

Now 11-year-old Zach has been run out of his own neighborhood: In March, the same feisty mute swan that stole Zach's late object of affection roughed him up so badly that he ended up in rehab at a Virginia wildlife laboratory.

But there's still hope for a happy ending to this avian soap opera.

The organization that brought Zach to Lake Elkhorn in 1999 as part of a research project on reintroducing swans to the Chesapeake region and understanding their migration patterns, is nursing him back to health on a 50-acre reservoir in Warrenton, Va., where he has taken up temporary residence with about 45 other swans.

The graceful waterfowl was "a little rattled and not too happy after being beat up," said John Whissel, a biologist with Environmental Studies at Airlie, the research group that first placed the bird in Columbia.

Still, Whissel said, "Zach is back with us and he is looking for a girlfriend, and when he [finds a mate], he will go back."

Scientists also plan to round up the errant mute swan, Mac, and send him to other territory once Zach is ready to come home to Lake Elkhorn.

The incident offers a window into the challenges faced by biologists working with a wildlife species known more for its elegance than for its temperament.

Zach is one of 10 rare trumpeter-tundra -- or "trumpling" -- swan hybrids that are part of the Virginia-based study focused on swan migration and other issues.

Biologists say trumpeters are the largest migratory waterfowl native to North America. The black-billed species, which have a yellow dot near their eyes, can weigh as much as 35 pounds and have a wingspan of up to 8 feet.

Trumpeters are native to Maryland but were nearly wiped out by early settlers hunting them for their feathers and meat.

Biologists say the tundra swan, another swan that migrates to Maryland in the winter, is slightly smaller than the trumpeter, and the breeds can be confused. (One important distinction: the trumpeter makes a trumpet-like call, and the tundra's voice sounds like a whistle.)

The hybrid of the two species was a coincidence, Whissel said.

"They choose their own mate, and it's nothing we do to encourage that, and we certainly don't do anything to stop it. ... We know in the wild, they can hybridize," he said.

Zach is one of several swans in the Airlie program that have graced Columbia's landscape since the 1980s and made themselves popular with residents near Lake Elkhorn.

"Everybody in the neighborhood knows them," said Colette Roberts, who lives near Elkhorn. "People fully appreciate them, and they are concerned about them."

But those swans face stiff competition from mute swans, a larger -- and more aggressive -- nonmigratory species that originated in Europe and Asia and has multiplied since the 1960s in the Chesapeake region after some domesticated birds escaped.

The mute swan, easily identified by its S-shaped neck and orange bill with black knob, is not formally considered a nuisance species in Maryland, as it is in Virginia.

But Jonathan McKnight, associate director of habitat conservation for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the growing population in Maryland -- as many as 4,000 -- poses concern.

"Mutes are very aggressive, and that is part of why they are a problem in Maryland," McKnight said. "They attack other species of wildlife and even attack humans."

That can be especially true heading into mating season -- hence the tussle at Lake Elkhorn.

"Mac and Zach got into it, and basically that happened because they are very territorial," said Whissel, the Virginia biologist. "They are very tough, and they can hurt each other. They can punch each other with these spurs under their [wings] -- and they can punch with incredible force."

Columbia Association Operations Manager Daniel D'Amore said the association received numerous phone calls about the dispute. "They were fighting, and Mac had the upper hand -- or should I say wing," said D'Amore.

It was just the latest bit of drama involving Zach, who came to Lake Elkhorn in 1999, supposedly to mate with Patty, a trumpling swan named after the wife of Columbia's founder, James W. Rouse.

There wasn't much spark, however -- Patty ended up with Mac, and the two produced what was reported by The Sun in 2001 to be the first species of mutling swans, a mixture of mute and trumpling breeds.

Zach never had the chance to win back Patty, who was shot in the head and killed that year. Abby, another trumpling swan, was sent to Lake Elkhorn by Airlie for Zach to mate with.

But Abby disappeared in 2002 -- some in the neighborhood reported seeing Mac force her away from his vanquished rival.

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