Ask the Swan Specialist

Captive Swan Care During Extreme Weather Conditions
By:The Regal Swan®
Date: 11 July 2006

Geoffrey R. Gardner, DVM
Christopher W. Brown, DVM
Fanchon F. Funk, Ed.D.
Sheila A. Bolin, M.S.
Rebecca Webb Wilson, J.D.
Shirley A. Bolin, A.G.S

Swans are regal birds adding beauty and elegance to any body of water. It is for this reason that many cities, resorts, hotels and individual property owners keep swans. Unlike their wild counterparts, captive swans depend on their human caretakers to sustain them with supplemental food, veterinary medical care and provide shelter from Nature’s elements.

Drought, hurricanes, extreme cold and excessive heat can seriously affect how one maintains captive swans. Swan keepers must be resourceful and maintain a constant vigil to provide a safe and healthy habitat for their avian flocks.

The Regal Swan®, based at Orange Lake Resort & Country Club in Orlando, Florida, is comprised of a team of researchers investigating captive swans at Orange Lake and Lake Morton, Lakeland, Florida. Orange Lake, founded by the late Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inns®, has six captive swans which the team maintains for the resort. The swans inhabit an eight acre man-made lake. During the course of the researchers’ study, extreme weather conditions have occurred making it possible for the researchers to observe how weather affects captive swans.

A particular occurrence this year has been a record setting drought. Droughts cause a potentially hazardous threat to captive swans especially when they occur during the nesting season. Inability to access water or climb steep banks and walking to find a good watering source can be deadly to swans. Swan keepers around the state of Florida asked The Regal Swan® researchers how to control water levels and make banks accessible to young swans and cygnets. Upon investigating these questions, the researchers used various materials to construct and test ramps for the young birds. Some were successful and others failed miserably. Sandbags and sod were good materials, but eventually eroded or floated away under the weight of constant climbing by the adult swans.

The researchers contacted Ken Myrick, founder of PetStep®, a manufacturer of pet ramps, to ascertain if the ramps could provide swans with easy access to steep banks. PetStep® provided a ramp and the ramp was installed near the steep bank and held in place by sod and sandbags. The sides of the ramp were shored with more sandbags and sod so that the young cygnets could not fall from the ramp. The PetStep® ramp was immediately adopted by the young birds as a source for entering and exiting water (see photo).

However, the adult swans could not stay on the single ramp. The swans’ ungraceful gait on land as well as their wide, top-heavy bodies made it almost impossible to keep their feet on the single ramp while walking. Myrick was notified of the problem and quickly offered the suggestion to use two ramps clamped together. Again, another ramp was shipped. With the assistance of PetStep, the ramps were safely and securely clamped together. Sod and sandbags were replaced around the two ramps where the adult swans were located. Within minutes, the adult swans were able to traverse the ramps in and out of the water. (See photo).

Orange Lake took an additional step to rectify the problem and constructed pens five feet from the water’s edge. The pens have self-contained ponds which are flush with the ground and have daily irrigation and drainage capabilities (see photo). If swan keepers do not have access to pen materials or funding for such an elaborate pen setting, the use of the PetStep® ramps will help solve the problem of swans entering and exiting water during droughts.

Hurricanes present a whole new problem for the swan keeper in captive settings. At Orange Lake, the swans are under 24-hour 7-day-a-week veterinary medical care by Drs. Geoffrey R. Gardner and Christopher W. Brown. The swans are brought indoors during impending severe weather or major hurricane warnings. The swans have even been evacuated to other areas of the state when a major hurricane threatens.

Although Orange Lake only has six swans, flock size becomes a major consideration regarding the reasonable construction of shelter or the feasibility of moving the swans to higher ground. Hurricanes generate floods and excessive winds. Flooding prevents the young birds from seeking high ground and maintaining dryness. The inability to remain warm and dry can lead to hypothermia which can progress to an infection such as pneumonia.

Excessive winds can break a swan’s neck or wing or launch the bird into nearby structures. Removal of any materials which may become missiles in and around swan habitats must be undertaken prior to a storm’s approach. In any case, shelter must be provided.

Droughts and floods are also serious concerns for swan keepers in the southeastern United States. Alligators, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, turtles and other carnivores are predators to both captive and wild swans. Eggs, young swans and even adults can be an easy meal for opportunistic predators.

During times of severe drought or flooding, animals are displaced and look for other areas to inhabit and find food. Dry-land animals, such as bobcats, look for higher ground during floods while wetland animals such as alligators look for wet areas during times of drought. Animals may roam outside their normal woodland or wetland habitats and ultimately encounter captive swans. Alligators not only look for food sources during the drought, but bodies of water with at least six feet of water for mating. The alligator mating season in Florida runs in conjunction with the swan nesting season. Wandering swans looking for water as well as nesting swans must be penned during times of drought. Water must be readily provided, but the pens must also be protected from the alligators which can climb chain-link fences.

Tim Williams, the dean of alligator wrestling from Gatorland Zoo, Kissimmee, Florida, and Shawn Boschert, horticulturist, Orange Lake Resort & Country Club, designed and built the pens with angled tops to prevent alligators from climbing into the pens.

Extreme cold and excessive heat can greatly influence the ability of a swan to maintain homeostasis in their normal body temperature of 106 degrees F. Hypothermia can lead to pneumonia or other respiratory infections while hyperthermia can lead to heat stress and dehydration. A swan keeper must provide ample shelter for weather elements and maintain a good rapport with a knowledgeable avian veterinarian in the event of illness or injury.

As previously stated, a swan keeper must be resourceful and vigilant. More importantly, swan keepers must continually enhance their knowledge base concerning best current swan keeping practices and maintain a network of knowledgeable swan specialists and related resources. All of this collaboration will ensure a safe and healthy habitat for captive swans during extreme climatic events.

About the authors: The authors comprise a research project, The Regal Swan®, which has the primary focus of promoting and educating swan keepers and other interested individuals about the humane maintenance and veterinary medical care required for captive swans. For more information on their research, please visit (www.theregalswan.com).

For additional information on PetStep ramps, please visit (www.PetStep.com).




Swan pens at Orange Lake Resort & Country Club in Orlando, Florida.



An adult swan using double PetStep® ramps.



A cygnet using a single PetStep® ramp.