Every year, a beautiful love story plays out on the waters of Idaho. It’s a classic boy-meets-girl story. She knows she has reached the age when she is ready to meet her soul mate and create a life together. He has been waiting patiently to meet “the one” but nothing has felt quite right. Then one day, while swimming in Killarney Lake, she sees him through the crowd. Their eyes lock. She knows instantly she has just met her mate. They quickly glide toward each other and begin swimming side by side while they wildly preen their feathers….
Yes, this is the beginning of the alluring courtship ritual of tundra swans.
The immense love these partners show one another could be a lesson to their human counterparts. When tundra swans decide to take a partner, it is for life. They will spend their lives together traveling hundreds, if not thousands of miles, always close to one another as they migrate to their breeding grounds in Alaska from their wintering areas along the west coast of the continental United States. The Coeur d’Alene basin happens to be along their route, which is why they can be seen in March on their way north and then in October and November heading South.
About 4,000 tundra swans migrate through North Idaho, but their populations use to be much greater. After the turn of the century they were intensely hunted until conservation efforts were able to support a recovery. However, tundra swans were then faced with another hurdle: lead poisoning as a result of unabated silver mining waste. Swans are severely affected by toxins in the sediments because they feed on tubers and roots within marshes. It is estimated that 80 percent of the waters in the Coeur d’Alene basin are polluted with heavy metals.
Fortunately, great strides have been made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited to establish swan habitats in healthy marshes and lakes. With the help of decoys and tempting seed-bearing grasses, the swans are attracted to these safe waters. And this is where we can now see the avian affairs unfold.
Their mate-for-life commitment to one another is just a small part of a swan’s love relations, which is likely why they have been synonymous with devotion and marriage for millennia.
It is extremely important to swans to maintain the bond with their partner, so they can often be found “dancing” with one another. The two birds will swim together, wings touching, and preen their feathers with intensity. They will then begin to angle their necks and dip their heads under water, always watching one another. One of the birds will then tuck its head in close to its chest and observe its partner admiringly as they continue to preen. At this point they start to move in closely touching chests and twisting their elegant, slender necks. You may even observe them arching their neck, making a heart-shape as they stare into each other’s eyes.
It is around this point the birds will “do the deed” (which by the way is done much more often than needed for reproduction and thought by scientists to maintain strong bonds between pairs). After the consummation, the real beauty takes place. The two birds will float adjacent to each other and almost rise out of the water by paddling vigorously so that they are flying across the water all while looking at each other. Two birds in perfect harmony celebrating their union.
To witness these exquisite fowl, with their pure white plumage exhibiting so much love and attention, is remarkable. Their movements are deliberate and in unison, like a perfectly choreographed ballet.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from these affectionate swans. Perhaps if we dropped everything we were doing and picked up our partner and careened them across the room at any given moment, we, too, could strengthen our bonds. Perhaps we could learn to be true love birds.
By: Meegan Corcoran/Photography by: Diane Higdem