Lakeland Swans: Representing the City for Nearly 60 Years
By James Coulter
Swans are to Lakeland what pigeons are to New York City. These avian mascots appear everywhere, from the city’s logo to the downtown sculptures. But the most famous and real-life swans are those that live at Lake Morton and the surrounding lakes.
Having graced Downtown Lakeland for more than 90 years, the earliest swan sightings were in 1923, when wealthy lakefront residents often owned them as pets and later released them into the wild.
By the 1930s, there were at least 20 swans residing in Lakeland. Sadly, their numbers dwindled as they fell prey to predators and disease. By the 1950s, there were only a handful of swans left. The last one was eaten by an alligator in 1954.
The death of the very last swan saddened many residents. One in particular, Mrs. Robert Pickhardt, who was then residing in England, desired to see the swans return once more to Lakeland.
She wrote to Queen Elizabeth II requesting that she donate a few swans owned by the Royal Family that flock along the Thames River. Of those Thames River swans, the very first pair were offered to King Richard the Lionhearted as a reward for his efforts in the Crusades. The progeny of that first pair have since remained along the Thames River for generations.
Pickhardt received an official reply informing her that the Queen would gladly donate a pair of swans if they received $300 in compensation for their trapping and shipping costs. One generous Lakeland visitor, wanting to see the return of the swans once more, gladly made the donation. Not long after, a pair of White Mute swans were shipped from Britain and released on Lake Morton in 1957.
Nearly 60 years later, the descendants of these two swans have continued living along lakes Morton, Mirror, Hollingsworth, and Wire. Currently, there are 80 swans residing in Downtown Lakeland.
To ensure that these swans remain for future generations, the City of Lakeland takes special precautions to ensure their health and safety. Their wings are clipped to prevent them from straying too far from the lakes, and the Parks and Recreation department keeps a close eye on them.
Despite these precautions, a few problems have befallen the swans. In 2012, thieves pilfered more than 40 of their eggs. Swan eggs are considered a rare delicacy and sell for high prices on the black market.
Though security has since been heightened in response to these thefts, the stolen eggs resulted in no offspring for that year.
For the past 34 years, the swans have been herded up every October and sent to the veterinarian for their annual check-up.
Steve Platt, parks and recreation supervisor for the downtown area, has worked with the city for 17 years, 15 of which he has spent overseeing the swans.
Though his job is no longer as hands-on as it used to be, he supervises the two employees who oversee Lake Morton. Their job entails feeding the swans four times a week and responding to emergency calls.
Platt is always the first to respond to a problem concerning the swans. He and his men arrive on the scene and inspect the reported swan for any abnormalities. If they find any, they transport it to the animal hospital to receive proper care.
For him, the most fun part about his job is the annual roundup in October.
It begins with proper preparation days before the big day. Platt and his men gather the necessary equipment they need for that day, including nets and pens, and ensure that they are safe enough to handle the swans.
The day of the roundup starts bright and early at the crack of dawn. Platt and his men start early when the weather is cooler to make the roundup less taxing on the swans.
“It’s stressful enough as it is already in the first place, but the heat adds even more stress, so we try to do it as quick as we can first thing,” Platt says.
Around 6 a.m., Platt and two other park employees arrive at the lake with nets in hand, three times the size of an average fishing net.
They board the boat with Platt standing at the stern, net in hand, ready to catch swans, while another employee mans the boat.
For the past 12 years, Platt has worked with the same employee with the same roles, which enables them have the roundup down to a fine science.
As the motorboat skims the lake, they approach the birds and swoop them up into the net and place them into the crate. When they have caught at least two or three, they return to the holding pen to deposit the birds before going back onto the lake to continue the same process until all of the swans have been caught.
The swans, having the same experience every year, rarely give chase or fight back, Platt says, but rather, willingly get caught.
“They know what we are doing that day,” he says. “They don’t try to get away from us. They just give up.”
Once all the swans have been caught, they are fed and remain in their holding pen for the night.
Dr. Patricia Mattson of the Companion Animal Hospital in Lakeland has been responsible for overseeing the swans’ health since 2011. Every year, she gives the swans their annual check-up when they are weighed, inspected, and vaccinated. Each of the swans are implanted with microchips to better aid in their identification and the monitoring of their health.
Overall, the swans have remained in good health for as long as Dr. Mattson has worked with them. Their nutrition has been a major concern. Though the swans are properly fed by the city, they also receive extra food, mostly bread, from park visitors.
“Bread is not very nutritious for us, and it is also not very nutritious for them,” Dr. Mattson says. “It has a lot of empty calories, and when they consume a lot of empty calories, they don’t eat the regular food that they should.”
She wants to inform the public that they do not have to feed the swans in order to enjoy them. They can simply watch the swans and leave their feeding to the city. Dr. Mattson says if spectators wish to feed the swans, healthier food such as lettuce is best.
Another main concern has been with their reproduction. To ensure that the swans remain for future generations, they must maintain healthy offspring each year. Last year saw the birth of 16 healthy cygnets, but the year prior, due to the egg thefts, only two were born, and neither of them survived.
Otherwise, the swans remain in good health and are expected to continue giving enjoyment to Lakeland residents for many years.
“They are a beautiful asset to the city,” Dr. Mattson says. “Lakeland is a lovely small town, and I think it’s one of the nice things that we have with nice parks and such a beautiful bird for everyone to enjoy. It’s one of the reasons I donated my time taking care of them.”