David Novak gives the Harbour Links swan family the royal treatment.
He checks on their nests and, occasionally, leaves food supplements for them. The adult swans know the sound of his bicycle bell.
Ask him a question about a mute swan, and he probably knows the answer. He can easily tell you about how they mate for life or their nesting patterns or caring for a cygnet (aka a baby swan).
Still, Novak recently learned something new about the Longboat Key swans.
They’re descendants of a 1957 pair of swans that Queen Elizabeth II gifted to Lakeland after predators decimated the local population.
All Lakeland’s swans are descendants of that “royal pair.” The Longboat Key swans descended from those Lakeland swans.
That means that the Harbour Links family that appears so elegant — even regal — is truly royalty.
Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for five years in 1957, when Her Majesty received a letter from a Lakeland resident.
According to the Lakeland Library Special Collections, a Lakeland resident, identified as Mrs. Robert Pickardt, enjoyed the swans and mourned the loss of the local population. So he wrote to the queen, asking about the possibility of purchasing a pair from the royal flock on the Thames River.
A representative of the royal family replied that the queen would donate a pair of swans to Lakeland, if the city would pay the cost of capturing and shipping the swans to the United States.
Citizens raised the money, and two white mute swans were released Feb. 9, 1957 on Lake Morton.
Throughout the next 55 years, the Lakeland population would expand. A pair of the family’s descendants, later named George and Gracie, found their way to Longboat Key in 1994, when Novak’s neighbor, Alan Stone, bought the swans from Lakeland as an anniversary gift for his wife, Beverly.
George and Gracie mated, and the flock grew to include three mated pairs: Henry and Vickie, Wendy and Stan, and Alan and Beverly.
Like England’s royal family, the swan family has had its share of drama. It hasn’t made the pages of People and Us Weekly, although it has gotten its share of coverage in the Longboat Observer.
There’s been death: Gracie died of botulism in 2007.
There’s been abandonment: Often swan parents abandon their cygnets, which is sometimes nature’s way of weeding out the weak.
There have also been rumors: A pair of young swans appears likely to mate, although they haven’t yet produced eggs.
Still, they never hinted of their royal lineage.
But, some longtime Lakeland residents knew the truth about their swans’ royal history.
It had circulated through word-of-mouth over the years.
Plus a resident, when she was a child, wrote a letter to Buckingham Palace, as part of a Blue Birds scouting project, inquiring about the swan heritage.
“She wanted to do something different, so she decided to write the queen,” said Sheila Bolin, of the Regal Swan Foundation, in Kissimmee.
A representative of the royal family responded and confirmed the bloodline. The resident held onto that letter through the next decades.
The swans seemed content to remain disguised as commoners.
But this year, when the queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in honor of 60 years on the throne, the palace made preparations to send David Barber, swan marker for the queen, on a single stop to the United States and a single stop in Canada.
The swan marker position was established in 1400 to maintain an official registry of the Thames River swan population. Barber would visit two places that were home to a population that descended from royal swans.
The Regal Swan Foundation hoped Barber would visit Lakeland. But it didn’t have official proof of the lineage.
Finally, officials discovered two photos in the Windsor Palace archives that showed the swan pair’s arrival in 1957.
And so, Sept. 8, Barber visited Lakeland for a reception.
He shared anecdotes about the queen and her role in the annual “Swan Upping” — aka, the annual census of swans along the Thames.
Novak was there for the celebration. He has worked closely with the Regal Swan Foundation in caring for the swans.
He presented Barber with a letter, intended for Her Majesty in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee. It read:
From the town of Longboat Key:
“With best wishes on your Diamond Jubilee, we will be forever grateful for your generous gift of swans to the city of Lakeland in 1957, from which a flock of swans now graces our island surroundings.”
Although the lineage came as news to Novak, he said the swans are “kind of indifferent” about their heritage. And it doesn’t matter to the man who believed he was dealing with commoners for all this time.
“It really doesn’t change anything,” he said.
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