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Do Swans Mourn?

The Toronto Star
April 01, 2012

Margaret Bream

Do swans mourn?

Tycho and Penny adored each other, oblivious to people watching as they stroked each other's necks.

Tycho and Penny were the names I gave 'my' two mute swans at Ashbridge's Bay.

For nearly a decade I watched them together as they built nests and raised many offspring.

The great birds were inseparable. Now it's been 14 months since Penny disappeared from Ashbridge's Bay. One day she was sailing through the icy winter waters with the resplendent Tycho. The next day, Tycho was cruising the bay alone.

For the first few days of her absence, I thought maybe Penny had gone off on her own somewhere down the lake. Perhaps she needed the cygnine equivalent of 'me time.'

But as Penny's absence went from days to weeks, my hope faded. I feared the worst. She was lost to the cold, old age or an attack from an animal, perhaps an unleashed dog.

The books say swans mate for life, and I had no reason to think our pair had opted for a quickie divorce. They were completely devoted to one another.

Once while I was watching them, a large dog bounded down toward the water. Tycho was instantly on alert, sailing over to get between Penny and the potential danger.

The bond between the two adult swans was palpable.

Each year in early spring, Penny and Tycho reaffirmed their love with a spectacularly choreographed mating dance, twisting their supple necks repeatedly into a perfect heart shape. It looked for all the world like love. (You can see a very short video of their mating dance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuvsPFQ57Y0)

Their dance was followed by a brief, nearly underwater mating, after which there was vigorous ruffling, preening and loud rearranging of feathers. Next came the selection of a nest site. Most years it was a rocky ledge on the property of the Ashbridge's Bay Yacht Club. Both swans took part in rebuilding their huge nest each spring, with Tycho doing most of the housekeeping, constantly rearranging the sticks to make it just so.

At the beginning of June, a brood of fluffy cygnets, usually eight or nine strong, would hatch. A day later, both parents would patiently lead the babies over the rocks and down into the water for their first paddle.

Tycho and Penny were as devoted to their offspring as they were to each other. They did their best to make sure their cygnets did not become evening snacks for predators, rounding up the young swans and putting them to bed at 8:30 every night, before the sun set.

Predation would still take its toll, until by the end of August only two or three cygnets would survive.

The surviving youngsters would grow rapidly, gradually losing their dusky grey feathers to the white plumage of adulthood. By mid-fall, the cygnets would take their first flight, flapping wildly down the bay to take off.

By late November, Penny and Tycho would once again have the waters of the bay to themselves, the big male having chased away his own offspring, forcing the adolescent birds to find new homes of their own.

As I spent time watching the swans over the years, I discovered many people as smitten as I. One gentleman named Egon referred to the swans as 'my beauties' or 'my lovelies.' He had his own names for the great birds: Lohengrin for the male and Elsa for the female. But, after hearing my names, Egon began calling the pair Tycho and Penny as well.

Last winter when Penny disappeared, Egon was as saddened as I. We both watched Tycho patrol the waters of our bay alone, and wondered if he were lonely. The big bird just didn't seem to have the same spirit.

When the spring mating season arrived, we wondered what would happen. Tycho remained unpaired. Now the second mating season since Penny was lost is upon us ' and still Tycho is alone. There will again be no cygnets to watch this summer.

There are other swan watchers at the bay who think Tycho could use a mate. Last week at the boardwalk I met two women of the same mind.

'You talking to that swan?' one of the women asked me. 'We love that swan. We call him Swanlee.'

'I call him Tycho,' I replied. 'I love him, too.'

'We're wondering about his mate,' the other woman said. 'He seems so lonely without her.'

Margaret Bream is a Star editor, reachable at mbream@thestar.ca

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