Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Baby swans at Fresh Pond from the Fresh Pond Feathers Instagram account. (Photo: Kim Starbuck)

Had I begun writing this story sooner, as I’d intended, it would have had a different ending. It is a story about patience and hope, two emotions that many humans struggle to believe will be rewarded, especially in these fraught times. A pair of swans restored my faith.

The pair flew in from parts unknown in late winter and staked their claim to Little Pond, the small body of water between Cambridge’s municipal golf course and Fresh Pond Reservoir that is best known for its dog beach. The swans’ stately presence and industrious nesting activities heralded spring for many visitors to the reservoir, but their arrival spelled trouble for the park rangers and smaller waterfowl competing for sheltered space to nest and feed. Familiar as they’ve become, mute swans are relative newcomers to North America, having been imported from Europe in the late 19th century to adorn private estates and parks. As aggressive and territorial as they are beautiful, swans only did what came naturally, and their adaptation as a non-native species has been a success, at least from their standpoint. The indigenous Canada geese and mallard ducks would say differently, and state wildlife authorities and our park rangers take their side, though legally there is little they can do to stop the swans from proliferating.

They can try to prevent their eggs from hatching, though, and this spring the Fresh Pond ranger sought and received a permit from state wildlife authorities to addle the five eggs the Little Pond pair laid at the end of March. Knowing of this intervention and understanding the rationale, it still tugged at my heartstrings to observe the expectant parents continue to sit on their non-viable eggs, patiently awaiting the arrival of cygnets. Normally, a swan egg takes 35 to 40 days to incubate, and the pair waited all of April and well into May, and nothing happened. We walkers and runners made way for the ducklings and goslings that appeared on the banks of the reservoir, and still the swans waited. I wondered when they would finally give up and get on with their lives. Is the failure to reproduce a loss they’d quickly forget, or would they ruminate on their dashed hopes? Swans are monogamous. Would this pair try again next year and hope for a better outcome in a different nesting spot? It is hard not to project human emotions onto animals, and we are regularly confronted with evidence that nonhuman animals do experience a full range of emotions – including grief.

And this is where the story’s ending takes a different turn. Late in the third week of May, my husband returned from a walk around the reservoir and announced triumphantly that he had seen two baby swans. Unbeknownst to all of us who pitied their fruitless labor, the female must have covertly laid another pair of eggs, and now two tiny gray heads peeked up from beneath her wings. Almost immediately, they took to swimming like, well, ducks to water. The swans’ patience had been rewarded, and it was hard not to take that as a hopeful sign during a spring when it has been particularly hard to find reasons to feel hopeful.


Hope is fleeting. Late Monday afternoon, as I walked around Fresh Pond, I joined several others who had stopped to admire the swans showcased in the golden hour light on Little Pond. The others were enchanted by the sight of the family group swimming close together, but my heart sank. They were now a family of only three.