Paddling in Swan Territory

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By Amy Miller

It was a beautiful day on the Salmon Falls River. As we paddled up the gently moving water between Maine and New Hampshire, I could imagine we were in the wild north country, not 70 minutes from Boston.

An eagle soared overhead, confirming neighborhood wildlife gossip, and in the distance a woodpecker worked his tree. Just off the Maine bank, turtles sunbathed on fallen logs as we let our kayaks drift silently, not wanting to frighten them off.

Soon my son and his friend pushed ahead, comfortably paddling their fiberglass hulls while I struggled along in a blow-up craft better suited for lounging. We were exploring a waterway that boasts receiving in 1684 the first cow ever to land in the New World.

But danger lurked ahead.

“Wait for me,” I shouted. “There could be KILLER SWANS up there.”

No one paid attention. Which was too bad because I was only exaggerating a little.

Every year boaters enjoying the part of this 37.5-mile river between Rollinsford, NH and Berwick, Maine, report unwelcomed attacks by one or more local swans.

“They attacked our boat,” reported one canoeing angler.

“We weren’t even that close and it came after me,” said another.

Who would think these graceful white birds would create such a stir? Well, apparently anyone who knows anything about swans.

Or anyone who read the 2010 story of a 37-year-old man attacked by a swan in a pond in Illinois. The poor guy drowned after being thrown from a kayak by a mute swan, one of the more aggressive sorts of swans out there. The swan, or perhaps a second swan, stopped the man from swimming to shore, bystanders reported.

While injuries are rare, and serious injuries even rarer, mute swans will aggressively defend their nests in spring and are known to go after people using rivers this time of year. Among the largest waterfowl in North America, swans can weigh up to 28 pounds and have a wing span of up to 8 feet. So their aggression can be scary.

Experts advise that especially in spring we avoid nests, which are usually found along the banks or shore where reeds are flattened (by a sitting female).

Field and Stream’s website had little good to say about the mute swan, which was native to Europe and Asia, and brought to North America.

“Outside of animal rights organizations … you won’t find many fans of the mute swan,” the website said. “It’s an altogether nasty, ill-tempered and destructive bird.”

The swans were gallivanting elsewhere the day I went for a sunset kayak. But anyway, I knew, I was entering their territory, not vice versa.

US Fish and Wildlife Service info on Swans

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, eight chickens, dusky conure, chicken-eating dog and a great community.