Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.
Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.
Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.
Me: But you do mate for life, right?
Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.
Me: That’s kind of harsh.
Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.
Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.
Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.
Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?
Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.
Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.
Me: Do you have any other predators?
Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.
Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.
Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.
Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?
Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.
Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?
Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.
Me: So what are you doing these days?
Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.
Me: What kinds of things do you eat?
Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.
Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.
Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Me: How many eggs do you lay?
Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.
Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!
Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.
Me: More so than today?