We told the swans not to build their nest there. Seriously? We said. You really want to be this close to the parking lot, right off the foot path? You think this is a nice place to start your family, this corner of the harbor where all the trash washes up – food wrappers, water bottles, soda cans? Not my idea of a birthing center. But would they listen?
Sure enough, the next time we walked to the park in the village, the nest was done. The pen was sitting on top, and the cob was tucking a few last reeds into the side. We kept our son’s dog back, so the swans wouldn’t freak out. But we worried that not everyone would be as careful.
The town had stretched an official-looking fence between the nest and the path. But they didn’t include a sign warning against feeding wild water birds.
On Sunday, I took a friend to visit the swans. The pen was settled down for the count — a blob of white feathers, a curve of neck, head hidden under a wing. A pair of mallards and half a dozen Canada geese were hanging out nearby. No sign of the cob.
“See? She’s sitting on her eggs,” a man was telling his little girl. “Want to feed her? She needs food, because she has to sit on her eggs.”
He tossed a slice of bread – not a torn-off crumb, but a whole, hulking slice – over the fence. It hit the bottom of the nest. The pen raised her head, looked around and reached for the bread. Too far.
“Too bad,” the man said.
A mallard swam over and waddled up the side of the nest, coming after the bread. The pen raised her neck as high as it would stretch and opened her beak.
“Did you hear anything?” My friend asked. I hadn’t. But it seemed clear that she was calling for her mate.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Off getting a beer,” my friend said.
Meanwhile, the man tossed over another slice, missed again, and ended up feeding the mallard again.
“Darn,” he said, and threw another slide, this time hitting the swan. She grabbed the bread in her beak , tipped her head back, and swallowed. We could see the bulge moving down the length of her neck.
Enough already, I thought.
But the guy wasn’t done. We watched him throw in slice after slice. Mostly he missed, but sometimes he didn’t. With each toss of bread, more Canada geese and ducks moved in, and the pen grew increasingly disturbed. We kept waiting for the man to stop throwing bread, or for the cob to show up and and chase the other birds away.
When we left, the man was still throwing bread, and the cob was still a no-show.
Idiots, I thought.
As we were walking away, my friend mentioned something she’d read about economic development – how often our attempts to fix a problem end up making it worse. She was thinking the same thing as me, of course – that the man’s hapless attempt to help the swan was actually endangering her eggs.
Later, when I told the story to my husband, I said, “We didn’t say anything to the man.”
That was the first it occurred to me that we might have done something other than just watch. And judge.