Swan Song

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With Eagle Quest 2016 at a lull, we took a trip to Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in East Alton, Missouri to check out the local swan action.  Finally we were rewarded with hundreds of birds.  Honking, swimming, flying and frolicking in the semi-frozen wetlands along the Mississippi River, trumpeter swans were everywhere.

Swans 6(s)Seeing these regal beauties in their natural winter habitat seemed a little strange at first.  Like most people my usual experience with swans was in a park or on a private lake. Majestic snow white birds gliding effortlessly across the glassy waters. With graceful necks bent in a subtle S-curve, their beauty and elegance is duplicated in the mirror-like surface. Set against a back drop of perfectly manicured grounds, park benches welcome you to sit, relax and contemplate nature’s beauty. These birds never fly away, why would Swans 7(s)they?  Who would ever want to leave such an Eden?  Of course, I’m not that naive, I knew they would leave if they could.  I figured their wings were clipped, like the parakeets my kids had in grade school.  Of course, those feathers grew back and the birds were once again able to fly.  What I didn’t realize was that the wings of larger birds are generally not clipped.  Instead, these birds are pinioned.  Hmm.  I thought, what is that?  I was shocked when I found out.

Pinioning – A surgical procedure performed on a bird’s wing to render the bird permanently incapable of flight.

To me this is animal abuse. You wouldn’t cripple your dog to keep him from running away, and yet we are crippling these animals. We take away their gift of flight so we can gaze upon their beauty in our parks, golf courses and private estates.  Imagine how horribly traumatic this must be. An immature bird is snatched away from protective parents at a young age. The procedure is often carried out without anesthetic so he experiences the pain and terror of having part of one wing amputated.  As he grows older and instinctually attempts to fly, he is thrown off balance, often toppling over on his breastbone and injuring himself.  These animals are permanently maimed and will never be free to live their lives as nature intended.

The practice of pinioning is outlawed in some countries in Europe.  But here we lop off their wing with a pair of clippers and send them back to our man-made “Golden Ponds”, now a flightless entity suffered to swimming in endless circles for the rest of their natural life.

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I think of this injustice as I look back upon the photographs I took of the wild swans flying boldly across the late afternoon winter sky.  The ivory of their graceful wings set aglow by the radiant embers of the setting sun.  Their long necks leading them across the mighty Mississippi.  This is the way their lives should be.  I consider myself lucky to have been able to witness such a beautiful species in their natural migration and habitat.

He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.

Richard Bach, Jonathon Livingston Seagull



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