Two black swans left their breeder in Connecticut last week, arriving at the Abrams Animal Farm on Block Island Thursday, August 25, just in time to hunker down as Hurricane Irene moved up the coast. By Friday, one was mysteriously missing, reappearing two days later and 14 miles away in heavy surf off Westerly, blown north before the storm.
Firefighters rescued the 4-year-old male early Sunday morning, just before Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit the state’s southern coast. The bird has spent the days since touring the state, moving from Misquamicut’s Andrea Hotel to animal shelters in Saunderstown and Tiverton. It is due to return to the island Friday, September 2, miraculously unhurt.
“He has done so much travelling,” said Wendy Taylor Humphrey, who runs the West Place Animal Sanctuary in Tiverton, where the swan is now resting. “It’s amazing that he made it. The firefighter who went in and got him did a great thing — most people would have looked and kept going.”
The swan can’t fly. It's been pinioned and “doesn’t have flight capability,” Humphrey said. So was it swept across the sea for two days by the southerly winds that preceded the hurricane? “It seems to be the only possibility,” she said.
Misquamicut Volunteer Fire Chief Louis Misto met his crew at 6 a.m. Sunday morning to inspect the waterfront as high tide, and storm surges from Irene, drew near. At Clark Avenue Beach, between the Andrea and the Pleasant View Inn, they saw a black bird struggling in the 10-foot waves.
“He was really in a tough place,” Misto says. “He was getting swept back a hundred feet, then a big wave would come and sweep him up against a dune that had a sand fence in front of it. It was hard to look at.”
Misto, who had never seen a black swan before and initially thought the bird was a goose, says he was half joking when he asked, “Alright, who’s going to go in and get him?”
But one of his men, Stephen Deperry, didn’t hesitate. “I’ll do it,” Deperry told Misto, before wading out into the surf, grabbing the bird and throwing it up over the sand fence.
“The area he was found at is completely destroyed now,” Misto says. “I’m amazed he’s pulled through.”
The swan, able to walk only haltingly, stayed close by through the night.
“The bird was shaken up and dehydrated,” says Andrea Hotel Manager Todd Findeisen, who’s also assistant fire chief and helped in the swan’s rescue. Findeisen says the bird spent Monday morning on the hotel patio, where staff offered him mesclun salad and grapes and were won over by his friendly personality.
Later that day Governor Lincoln Chafee and Department of Environmental Management staff toured the Andrea to assess storm damage. After seeing the exhausted bird, said DEM spokesperson Gail Mastrati, staff took it to the Wildlife Clinic in Saunderstown. The clinic called Humphrey, who specializes in swan, duck and turkey rescue.
“They tube fed him at the clinic because he wasn’t eating on his own,” Humphrey related. “He was a little battered and depressed, but he perked up when he saw all the other waterfowl here. He started squawking and making lots of noise, and eating bugs and grass.”
The black swan's legs are still shaky but he went for a swim in the pond on Humphrey’s 8-acre property Wednesday night with two mute swans, Humphrey said.
How he escaped from the Abrams Animal Farm remains a mystery.
There is no way that the swan could have escaped its pen on its own, said Debbie Jo Horton, the partner of animal farm owner Justin Abrams. And it left its life-long friend, in the cage. The farm is investigating how the swan disappeared sometime after Friday afternoon.
Horton said that black swans, unlike their white cousins, prefer salt water to fresh. Perhaps, she said, it made its way down to the sea once free.
One thing’s for sure: It’s thanks to the Internet that he’s returning. Horton emailed the Block Island Times on Sunday to ask that the swan’s disappearance be posted on the paper’s web site. Over the next few days, some 200 people read the brief announcement. Word reached Humphrey’s husband, who was researching where the swan could have come from, and once Humphrey had established that it was the same bird using a band on its leg, she cleared Abrams and Horton to come get him.
"We kept saying that it's not possible," Horton says. "But there are not that many black swans in New England, and the band is unusual. We're still going to be questioning it until we actually go see it."
Calls have been coming in from people offering to adopt the swan since the Westerly Sun ran a photo of him on Tuesday.
All swans mate for life, Humphrey says. Black swans are from Australia, and are much rarer than mute swans, which naturalized here from Asia. They’re seldom seen in the United States in the wild, and make good pets.
“Swans raised in captivity are very sweet, very tame, they will follow you around like a feathered dog,” Humphrey said. “And this guy has a great disposition. He’s going through a lot, but he’s very laid back.”