Skip to main content
Longboat Key Wednesday, Jun. 9, 2010 7 years ago

The swan caretaker

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

Just before sunset, the Harbour Links swans hear the sound. As the familiar ringing gets closer, they crane their necks in anticipation.

To the adult swans, the sound means food. The bell is attached to the bicycle of Harbour Links resident and unofficial swan keeper David Novak. This time of the year, just after the swans’ eggs have hatched, Novak rides his bicycle to the pond almost every evening to check up on the swan family and feed them special swan food. In a few months, he will scale back to two or three visits per week until spring, when the three pairs of mated swans return to nesting mode.

When it comes to the swans, Novak walks a line between intervention and allowing Mother Nature to take its course.

“They’re perfectly able to take care of themselves,” Novak said.

What he provides is more like a gentle nudge and a watchful eye. The past two nesting seasons, Novak has put out a bale of hay for the swans to use for their nests. (This year, only one swan, Vickie, actually used the hay; Beverly used reeds, and Wendy used twigs and leaves.)

Mother swans often refuse to leave their nests during the 35-day incubation period and can lose up to 30% of their body weight due to lack of food, so Novak occasionally leaves food near their nests as a supplement. After a few cygnets have hatched, he looks for abandoned nests, and removes discarded eggs or carcasses that could draw predators. But he is careful to avoid interference. For instance, if a pair of swans rejects a cygnet, he often avoids rescuing it, knowing that only the strongest cygnets will survive to maturity. Mother Nature at work.

It all began as a favor to a neighbor. Harbour Links resident Alan Stone bought original swans, Gracie and George, for his wife, Beverly, as an anniversary gift. Because Stone spends half of each year in Chicago, he planned to hire someone to feed the swans, but Novak volunteered to take on the responsibility. And his concern for the original pair gradually grew. He noticed that four or five cygnets from the nest of Gracie and George would hatch each year, but predators usually killed them. So, he and Stone put up a fence around their nest one year.

In 2007, sadness struck the swan family. Gracie died of botulism, a type of bacteria poisoning acquired from matter that settles at the bottoms of lakes and ponds. Because male swans often reject their cygnets without their female mate, George and the cygnets were moved to Lakeland, where the Regal Swan Foundation Inc. is located.

The incident gave Novak a new focus: He devoted himself to the mated offspring of Gracie and George: Vickie and Henry, Beverly and Alan, and Wendy and Stan.

“With that tragedy, it was kind of like somebody had to take charge,” Novak said. “That was the moment.”

He began working more closely with the Regal Swan Foundation and also bought a copy of “Swan Keeper’s Handbook,” which was written by the foundation’s leaders.

In recent years, the Longboat Key’s swan population has grown to the point that it was at risk of overpopulation. Swans are territorial and usually reject their cygnets before they are 1-year-old. An example of the dangers of overpopulation came last year, when Alan drowned a cygnet that had intruded in his space. So this year, when seven cygnets hatched from the nest of Vickie and Henry and one hatched from the nest of Wendy and Stan, Novak, with the help of the Regal Swan Foundation, took action by capturing the cygnets and transporting them to Lakeland. There they were vaccinated against botulism and underwent pinioning, a procedure in which one side of the swan’s wing is clipped, ideally done before the swan is 21 days old. The procedure prevents swans from flying and could allow them to be moved away from the Key Club in the future, if necessary.

Novak was there for the capture of the seven cygnets Friday, May 21, and drove them the next day to Lakeland. In the back seat, the group chirped the whole way. He watched as they returned to their Harbour Links home later that day.

But one cygnet remained. Stan and Wendy’s cygnet had avoided capture with the others. So, the following Tuesday, Novak again headed to Lakeland, this time with the stray cygnet by his side in the passenger seat.

The cygnet stretched its neck in the air throughout the entire ride.

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].

Related Stories