A “tuk, tuk” from the water below draws us to the side of the bridge. We look down through the crown of a leafless willow. Despite weeks of negligible rainfall, the spring-fed Ivel keeps a brisk flow. No amount of scanning the bankside will bring the moorhen – if that is what it was – out of cover.
A bird does indeed appear, as if propelled out from under our feet. A young swan that I haven’t seen for weeks has turned a lighter shade of pale, though it might not be in time for a pure white Christmas. In its autumn moult, the bird trades, quill by quill, the unassuming greys and browns of its juvenility for the brilliance of adulthood.
And therein lies peril. Dark plumage advertises innocence; whiteness in swan world constitutes a threat in the minds of its congeners. Something in the way this bird sits in the water – perhaps a neck that is raised beyond the habitual bend of relaxation – suggests that it rests uneasy.
A second swan bursts out from beneath the bridge, every feather advertising aggression. Who taught a male swan to “make yourself look big”, wings billowed, fanned and arched to present its opponent with a wall of fury? Neck thrown back so that the next move of its loaded head will be a thrust and stab?
Though the youngster paddles a retreat, the adult male rises out of the water and extends his neck. Slap! He strikes the surface with both wings. The young bird scrabbles to take flight. Slap! The male has caught up and may be trying to bite. Slap! The juvenile is flying, and the adult is – it seems – deliberately using his wingtips with percussive belligerence. The fleeing bird rounds the bend and the cob settles.
What kind of triumph is this? The adult has driven off its young, a bird he tended ever since it was an egg on his female’s nest. She sails up, wings also bowed in anger, a co-aggressor. The territorial pair have banished their offspring, a necessary cruelty of winter.
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