Male Swan Holds Vigil at Nest After Teens Kill His Mate

black swan widower photo
Photo: spaceamoeba / cc

Swan relationships, monogamous and lasting by nature, have long been emblematic of the tenderness and loyalty we can only strive to emulate in our own -- but sadly, sometimes it seems that cruelty may be our most enduring legacy. At a park in Melbourne, Australia recently, a group of teenagers brutally attacked and killed a female swan as she sat incubating a single egg. Since then, the swan's grieving widower has refused to leave the nest, waiting in vain, perhaps, for the return of his lifelong partner -- unable to comprehend her unimaginable fate.Witnesses say that a group of six teenagers were seen attacking the female black swan, the only breeding female in Melbourne's Queens Park. The four boys and two girls beat the nesting mother before killing her with rocks thrown at her head. The attackers fled before police arrived, and shocked bystanders were unable to save the injured animal.

Since the swan was so needlessly killed, its grieving male partner has held vigil at the nest, incubating their solitary egg. Swan parents typically divide their nesting duties -- but with his partner dead, his profound loyalty comes at the expense of his own health. For several days now, the bird has yet to feed, and experts are concerned that he may starve and that the egg may be lost if they do not intervene soon.

Bird specialists from the Melbourne Zoo say they are monitoring the situation, and that they are prepared to incubate the egg if and when the male swan finally abandons hope of his partner's return. A report from the Herald-Sun explains:

Melbourne Zoo ornithologist Glen Ericson said the father would be lost without its partner, as swans form strong bonds and share incubation.

"It would be a very difficult task for one bird to take that task on its own, because they have to leave the nest to feed," he said.

And Zoo curator Peter Courtney said the father would be unable to leave the nest for extended periods to feed.

"If the parent bird leaves the nest for an hour or up to two hours to feed, the eggs may remain viable - they're fairly large eggs and won't chill down," he said.

But if the father was to leave the nest for half a day, which is normal when a pair care for the eggs, the eggs would be less likely to survive, he said.

"In the wild, animals do lose mates and they do then form new bonds. He will recover, it will take a while though," says Courtney.

Meanwhile, police were able to track down at least three of the youths involved in the swan's murder. Animal rights supporters are urging that the punishment for the unprovoked attack be strong enough to discourage future acts of violence on the city's wildlife. Under Victorian law, perpetrators of animal cruelty could face two years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Visitors to the park have begun laying out flowers in a makeshift memorial to the female swan. And while bouquets and cards will do little to console the swan's windowed mate or better her unhatched offspring's chances of survival -- they offer quiet reassurance to a shaken community that, in the wake of such cruelty, loyalty and compassion are human instincts, too.

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