A new Cedar Key visitor: Mute swan

Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 10:10 p.m.
CEDAR KEY - From a distance, the white bird gliding between Whitman Point and the bridge to the airport during the past week looked like a seagull on steroids.
A closer look makes it clear that this bird with the long, graceful neck, snowy white feathers and distinctive black mask is one of those beautiful swans right out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.
This bird could be the model for a swan ice sculpture at a wedding or the model from which amusement park boats with large wings are created.
Birding enthusiasts were hoping that this would be a species they could add to their list of birds they have seen in North Central Florida.
Some will, but not John Hintermister.
"We were pretty excited at first, but this one failed the white bread test," said Hintermister, an Alachua Audubon member. "Generally when they will eat white bread, that shows that they are likely tame, and this one was certainly willing to eat the white bread."
The swan will not be added to Hintermister's bird list because this is a non-native species, imported from Europe into the northeastern United States well over a century ago.
How and why the bird selected Cedar Key for a winter visit may never be known. It is a mute swan without any leg bands to help identify where it came from.
Andrew Kratter, ornithology collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said mute swans are not really mute - they just don't vocalize while they are flying.
"But they do have some hisses, grunts and snorts they can use when they are upset," Kratter said. "And they are pretty aggressive, especially toward other waterfowl or even people."
Jim Rodgers, an avian biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said he once saw a mute swan take action to protect her goslings.
"I saw one in Busch Gardens where there was a little kid kind of teasing it and the swan opened up that kid's head above the eye with the bend of its wing," Rodgers said. "It would be safe to say she taught him a lesson."
The lone bird gliding along the shoreline since Jan. 9 in Cedar Key has not shown any signs of aggression, but it has not been provoked, either, local observers said.
Rodgers said because the mute swan is a non-native species, it is not regulated by the state, but anyone who wants to sell the exotic birds needs a permit. People who own flocks must follow state regulations.
"There are really only two native species of swans in North America - the trumpeter and the tundra swan," Rodgers said. "They can show up here in Florida occasionally, but that would be a rare event because they are mostly in Alaska and Canada."
Kratter and Rodgers each had a few theories about where a swan like this one would come from, but both men said that unless someone can identify the bird, no one may ever know its true history.
"This bird is probably one that got lost from a population in the Northeast where they are fairly common, or maybe it escaped from a private aviary," Kratter said.
"It may have wound up down here because it was trying to escape the bitter cold weather up north this winter, but generally these swans do not exhibit migratory behaviors," Rodgers said.
"Chances are that this one swan is off course from somewhere, but it is not the start of an invasion," Kratter said.
Rodgers said unless the swan becomes some sort of nuisance, there would be no reason to try to capture it. In time, he said, the swan may just move on or find its way back home.
Kratter said it may even decide to just hang around, "and maybe it will be one of those types that will become a colorful local character."
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or karen. voyles@ gvillesun.com.

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