No Lake for a Swan

Story: Andrea Abbott

Pictures: Andrea Abbott & Pixabay

Free-living Mute Swan

It was soon after hard lockdown ended and we’d regained some of our freedom that I first saw those swans.  A pair of elegant Mute Swans, they graced an uninviting, black plastic-lined pond that previously had been home to several alligators.  This might suggest the context was somewhere like Florida in the USA.  But actually, it was a garden in a suburb where I live outside Durban, KZN.

Mute Swans confined to a paltry pond

I stood at the pulsating electric fence that borders the impoverished patch of land where that inadequate pond is set and watched the swans glide languidly back and forth.  How different it was to seeing wild Mute Swans in their native habitats in the northern hemisphere.

A wild Mute Swan exercises its right to flight

I pictured again the times I’d seen them flying over expansive lakes in England and landing with a grace that belied their heavy bodies. (Mute Swans are one of the biggest of the world’s six swan species and on average weigh 12kgs.)

In my mind’s eye I could see them foraging among the aquatic plants at the water’s edge, and nesting on platforms they’d built in shallow water or on islands using vegetation from their lush surroundings.

A Mute Swan nests on a platform in its natural wetland habitat in the UK

I remembered too, clutches of downy cygnets following their parents into the big water for the first time to learn how to be the swans they were born to be. 

Mute Swan family
Mute Swan cygnet

My thoughts drifted to the swans that cover vast distances on their seasonal migrations; species like the endangered Bewick’s Swans that fly from their breeding grounds in Arctic Russia to western Europe and as far as the west of England – a distance of 3500kms – to escape the harsh Siberian winter, a journey that conservationist Sacha Dench charted by flying the route in a Paramotor in 2016. 

Bewick’s Swan

That great feat is perilous by any standard but swans  ̶ among the largest of flying birds  ̶  are more than equal to the rigours of such a flight because all species can fly very high and very fast.

Swans in flight

Indeed, with their wingspan of about 2.4m, Mute Swans are supreme aviators that can reach a top speed of about 90kph.

But not these two in their paltry man-made pond.

The Mute Swans in their black plastic-lined pond

You see, their wings had been clipped.  

Why is it OK to do this? Why is it acceptable to deny a bird its right to flight?

Wings that can no longer fly

Those who keep birds captive will  ̶  and do  ̶  argue that it’s to keep the birds safe.  Should they fly away – escape is perhaps a better word  ̶  they’d fall prey to raptors, or get lost, or starve or, or, or… This begs another question: for whose benefit is the bird kept captive? The captor’s or the bird’s?

In the hope that wing clipping is at least discouraged in an era when we are supposedly more attuned to the needs of animals, I did an online search. Instead of the general outrage I’d expected, I found many sites that sanctioned and gave guidelines for the practice, and a lot of videos demonstrating how it’s done.  Apparently, anyone can brandish the clippers to render a bird flightless.  Common claims are that it doesn’t hurt; that it’s similar to having your hair cut, or trimming your nails. This is specious reasoning. Cutting your hair doesn’t disable your head. Nor does trimming your finger nails inactivate your fingers. And neither affects your mobility.

Continuing my search, I eventually found just one or two sites in which the disadvantages of wing clipping were presented. One of them, Parrot Volancy  gives this advice: “Clipping a bird’s flight feathers alters the aerodynamic shape of their wings, which directly affects their mobility. A bird relies on its wings for normal movement, transportation, and exercise.”  The writer states further that parrots (and surely all flying birds) whether born in the wild or in captivity, have the same biological impulse to fly.  “Their brains, bones, muscles, organs, and entire bodies are structured specifically for flight. Restrict or eliminate flight and the bird is no longer able to move in a biologically appropriate way. Thus, in clipping a bird’s wings, we are assigning it a tangible, bodily disability with which it was not born. This disability has unfortunate consequences for both physiological and psychological well-being.”

Assigning a bird a tangible bodily disability that impacts profoundly and negatively on its well-being doesn’t sound like something a compassionate person would do.  I looked at South Africa’s Animal Protection Act to see if there were any regulations that might help stamp out this kind of cruelty. There weren’t.  As stated by the local chapter of the World Animal Protection organisation there is room for improvement in many areas related to animal welfare in our country.  In particular, legislation should be revisited to ensure that the Five Freedoms of all individual animals is recognised.

These freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst. Included in this is a diet specific to an animal species.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Looking at the swans’ enclosure, I could see nothing in the way of natural forage or shelter from the elements. And while they at least have each other, I sense that if they could speak they’d say they’d love more space and an enriched environment where they could at least forage naturally.

I visit the swans often and am deeply saddened whenever they exercise their shortened wings: wings rendered useless because of the hubris of humanity. 

In an ecologically impoverished enclosure, a Mute Swan exercises its shortened wings.

Sadder yet is when birds like Hadedas land in the swans’ prison then, with a beat of their undamaged wings, take off again, the swans looking up as if in envy.  Their mental suffering must be considerable.

Their freedoms denied, ‘my’ swans are completely locked down. I think back to the days of Covid hard lockdown, and how people complained bitterly about being restricted. “Our wings have been clipped,” was the common refrain. It was never that bad. We might have been grounded temporarily but we were never stripped of our mobility.  

Isn’t it time we examined the morality of keeping birds captive?

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for referring to my website! Waterfowl seem to have it the absolute worst. I mention pinioning on my website, even though the contents are intended more for parrot owners, because it is such an atrocious practice.

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