Polish Swans

While off work I have checked on a few ponds that still have cygnets from last year.  They need to move on as it won’t be long before we have the class of 2019!

At Barnes’ Pond I got chatting to someone who questioned why one cygnet was already completely white.  I said that it was a Polish Swan and we had quite a lengthy chat about these unusual swans.  The woman was surprised by what I said and it made me decide to post something about Polish Swans.

Science was never my strong subject so I am going to avoid explaining how Polish Swans occur.  Just to say they are not albino and more akin to a leucitic water bird.  For those interested I have copied the BTO’s description below which explains Leucism and Albinism a lot better than I could. If you’re not interested just skip this bit!

Leucism & albinism


 Dunnock by John Harding

Leucistic Dunnock

In leucistic birds, affected plumage lacks melanin pigment due to the cells responsible for melanin production being absent. This results in a white feathers, unless the normal plumage colour also comprises carotenoids (e.g. yellows), which remain unaffected by the condition. Although leucism is inherited, the extent and positioning of the white colouration can vary between adults and their young, and can also skip generations if leucistic genes are recessive.

The reduction of pigment in leucistic birds causes feathers to weaken and be more prone to wear. In some situations this can hinder flight, which, in addition to leucistic birds usually being more conspicuous, can heighten risk of predation. There is also evidence that leucistic birds might, on occasion, not be recognised or accepted by a potential mate.

Collared Dove by Pauline Warman

Collared Dove with ‘diluted’ plumage

In our Abnormal Plumage Survey, ‘leucism’ is being used as an umbrella term to encompass a number of plumage irregularities that can be difficult to distinguish from each other. One of these is called ‘progressive greying’, which also results in white feathers. While leucism is heritable, progressive greying is not – but without knowing the history of a bird, these two conditions are difficult to tell apart.

‘Dilution’ is another condition that we have grouped under the category ‘leucism’ in our Abnormal Plumage Survey. Here, plumage colour often appears ‘washed out’ (i.e. ‘diluted’). This Collared Dove (pictured) is a good example of this. In dilution, melanin cells are present (unlike in leucistic birds) but produce less pigment than normal. White feathers can also be caused by chromatophore (pigment cell) defects, rather than an absence of melanin-producing cells.


Albinism also results in white feathers but true albinos are thought to be rare in the wild. Albinism is caused by a genetic mutation causing an absence of tyrosinase in pigment cells. An albino individual is unable to produce melanin pigments. This leads to a good diagnostic feature with which to distinguish leucistic and albino individuals – the colour of the eye.

Albinos have pink eyes while the iris pigmentation of leucistic birds remains dark. Most albino birds die soon after fledging, primarily as a consequence of their poor eyesight, and albino birds are not thought to progress to adulthood in the wild. As with leucistic individuals, albinos can retain carotenoid pigments if normally present in the plumage. A common misnomer is ‘partial albino’ – this is not possible since albinism affects the whole plumage of a bird, not just part.


Anyway, that’s the technical stuff out of the way but I do know that if you see a Polish Swan it’s much more likely to be a female.  Males are usually carriers of the gene but having said that there are still some male Polish Swans.  I do know that if both parents are Polish then all their cygnets will be Polish too but I’m yet to see a pair of Polish swans.

They were first described over 170 years ago when they were sighted around Poland – hence their name.  At the time, they were thought to be a totally different species to the Mute Swan.  There has been very little research done into these swans – specifically their distribution around the United Kingdom – until a paper was published in January 2018 following a survey that was carried out in 2016.  Despite being rare we have two Polish families within a couple of miles of each other.  I am convinced that both of the breeding females are related but, of course, it’s impossible to prove.  They have BTO rings but they were not added until both swans were adults.  I do know that pens often return close to where they were born, when they breed.

Polish Cygnets are born white and look very different from their grey siblings and yet very few people seem to notice this when they are feeding them.  They have much paler legs and once they become adult this is pretty much the only way to identify them.  In my experience, and that of other rescuers, they seem less robust than other cygnets.

The breeding pair of swans at Barnes Pond produce some Polish cygnets each year although the majority of the brood are grey.  However, the other pair, that breed in nearby Roehampton, haven’t had Polish cygnets for the last couple of years.  Although they have moved locations, we know they are the same pair as their BTO rings are checked annually. There’s no doubt Polish swans are very rare but as most swans spend the majority of time in water the number could actually be under reported.  They are virtually impossible to identify unless their legs are visible.  Until 2013, the numbers logged were in single figures.  Even the highest figures, logged in 2016, show only 37 Polish cygnets to have hatched in the UK.  I hope future swan surveys describe Polish swans and encourage members of the public to identify them separately.  We might find that there are more Polish swans than we think.

Polish Cygnet.  Nine months old and soon to be chased off by mum and dad
Barnes Polish Cygnet
Swan family at Barnes last summer.
Adult Polish Swan.  Pale feet are the only identification.




January 2019 Highlights

I have finally returned to rescuing after surgery on my hand.  Officially, I was meant to stop for 12 weeks but I resumed rescuing 9 weeks post op.  It was meant to be a one-off that no-one else could get to.  But then there was another and so it went on.  My first rescue of 2019 was an interesting one.  A swan had crashed into a tree at South Norwood Lake and remained totally stuck.  The Fire Brigade was called and it took the fire fighters about 30 minutes to cut the swan down.  They then led her to the safety of the lake but were slightly concerned that she wasn’t quite ‘right’.  A couple of park users watched the swan and were worried how quiet she was.  They phoned the Swan Sanctuary and the call was passed across to me as no-one else was available.  It was my grandson’s birthday and I had only just arrived to see him, but rescues never come at convenient times.  I set off to attempt to catch the swan – my first proper rescue since October.  Once I got there, I tried to entice the swan, over with some bread and grain, but she wasn’t really interested.  She was naturally wary after her ordeal and was out of arm’s length so I ended up hooking her in.  I felt like I didn’t have a good grip on her and was kneeling on a bank very close to the water.  I was concerned she was going to get away from me at any moment but luckily two passers-by came over to offer assistance.  They helped me contain the swan and carried her to the car.  I took her to the Swan Sanctuary but apart from being a bit bruised and sore there was nothing much wrong so she was released within a couple of days.

Then, a few days later, just as I arrived at my dentist in Bayswater I received a call to say there was a swan in the road at Wimbledon.  I said I was unable to help but like most rescuers, I kept thinking about the swan and hoping that someone had been able to go.  It didn’t help listening to my phone ringing – it wasn’t a good sign but at least it was a distraction from the hygienist torturing me!  As soon as I left I phoned the guy to be told that yes, the swan still needed rescuing but some the residents in the street had shepherded her into a front garden so she was relatively safe.  The train journey home seemed an exceptionally long one – the District line must be the slowest of all the tube lines.  Finally, I reached Earlsfield and sprinted back to my car.  By the time I arrived at South Wimbledon the swan had been penned up in the front garden for three hours.  Luckily it was made very simple for me to catch and afterwards it was just a case of releasing her into the Kingston flock on the Thames.

After that, there seemed be a rescue most days – mainly territorials – some intruder adults but mostly cygnets being chased off by their parents; the very parents that had nurtured and fiercely protected them through the previous months.  Nature can be terribly cruel sometimes.

Last week-end there was a swan that landed in school playing fields, she had been there for several hours and made no attempt to fly out; in fact, she didn’t even stand up.  There were some very pro-active ladies who managed to get keys to open up the school gates to allow me access.  These rescues can be unpredictable.  I have often been told a swan hasn’t moved but as soon as I walk within 20 metres it miraculously flies off. It always feels little unsatisfactory when that happens.  You worry that it is injured and will come down again further up the road.  This one had a leg injury and was admitted to the Swan Sanctuary.  She probably landed awkwardly as she was a heavy, mature bird and would have come down with quite a thump.

Sadly, there seems to be an increase in swans being shot and there was recently a petition run by Swan Support calling for the licensing of air rifles.  I find it unbelievable that anyone 18 or over can purchase one quite freely.  Swans being shot creates quite a bit of publicity and stories sometimes even get covered in national newspapers.  However, there are numerous geese suffering the same plight but they do not attract the same attention.  Many are also living with pellets inside them.  We have some real black spots and if ever a goose appears with a lump on its face, in these areas, you can almost guarantee it’s been shot.  One this month, that another rescuer caught, had the largest ball bearing I have ever seen.  I have included the photos as seeing really is believing.  This poor goose must have been in such pain but I am very happy to say he is well on the road to recovery.

Finally, the cygnets that were currently residing in my shed, until today, were lightly oiled after a diesel spillage on the River Wandle.  In the summer, they may have coped with a little contamination but the freezing weather conditions mean they could die of hyperthermia.  One of them is quite underweight too.  There is no clear indication where it has come from but fortunately the geese seem to be less affected.  This is so often the case as, compared to swans, geese spend much more other time on land so are less likely to suffer from the pollution.  They are now being assessed at the sanctuary.  The weight of cygnets can vary so much; in this instance one was 6kg the other 9kg – 50% heavier.

Thank you for taking the time to read this – it’s good to be back rescuing and I hope everyone looking at my blog has a happy and healthy 2019.


December Round Up

There is very little to write about regarding  rescues as I am still on an enforced break, following surgery.  I have driven birds in to the Swan Sanctuary and helped out other rescuers but that’s about it.  Therefore, this month, I have decided to write about something that is getting quite a bit of publicity, amongst wildlife rescue groups, and is close to my heart.  You might have heard about the grey squirrel petition:

Make grey squirrel rescue exempt from Invasive Alien Species Order 2019

It sounds a bit of a mouthful but let me explain it in a nutshell.  You may or may not know that there are many animals and birds deemed non native and they have little or no protection.  If they are rescued, due to sickness or injury, they are usually put to sleep by the larger animal charities,  They are classed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act as Schedule 9s and these are non releasable, so charities that immediately euthanase rather than take a sick animal into their care are acting according to the law.  It seems insane that a charity with the word ‘Protection’ in its title is actually putting the animals, that they are supposed to protect, to sleep.  And so the smaller charities are very often protecting them from the larger charities to give them a chance.  However, Natural England, which is a government department linked with DEFRA, issue a limited number of licences, each year, permitting rescue centres to release the injured birds or animals back to the wild.  Of course, it can also be an orphaned young animal.  It was far from perfect as the numbers of licences issued were limited but it was certainly better than nothing.

In March the Invasive Alien Species Order is due to be fully implemented. Some of the Schedule 9 birds and animals will no longer be able to be rehabilitated and/or released.  It does not cover all of the Schedule 9s but the Grey Squirrel is amongst the animals that no longer can be released as Natural England will no longer issue licences for them. This includes all orphaned baby squirrels that are so often brought to rescue centres by members of the public.  How sad to think  that rescuers and vets who devote their lives to caring for animals will be forced to kill these innocent animals or face prosecution.

The idea that the numbers of these species cared for by wildlife rescues each year have any sort of impact on the larger ecological picture is ridiculous.

While the petition for the grey squirrel is gathering momentum, another animal that is being overlooked is the Egyptian Goose.  They are a common sight around London and Surrey but it some parts of the country there are none.  There seems to be no rhyme nor reason why Egyptians are on the Invasive Species list yet Canada Geese are not and will still be able to be released if the rescuer has a release licence.  I do not believe that there is any evidence  to suggest that Egyptians have adversely affected native waterfowl.  Whether they are even a goose is debatable – their close relative is the Shelduck. There are only 3,400 in the UK whereas the population of Canada Geese is 190,000.

Not only will there no longer be release licences for these invasive species they cannot even be kept at a sanctuary.  In the past I have rescued many geese, including Egyptians, that had suffered from a broken wing.  Although unable to fly they can enjoy a fulfilling life in a sanctuary.  These birds can no longer even be kept at a sanctuary. The existing ones are safe but from March no rescue centres or sanctuaries can provide a permanent home for the Egyptian Geese.

I don’t know what the answer is.  If the grey squirrel petition is successful and squirrels becomes exempt from the Invasive Species legislation maybe the Egyptians’ plight will be reviewed.  If anyone reading this feels motivated enough to start a similar petition  for our Egyptian Geese please contact me by email.  Please click on this link and sign the squirrel petition – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/235425

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  If you have any questions please email me.


The Coot in the House of Lords

Last week I got a call from  London Wildlife Protection volunteer, Adele, seeking help.  She was trying to catch an injured coot that despite being injured and unable to fly could move around at a remarkable rate.  She and another volunteer had gone straight from work and had no nets. It turned out they were in the House of Lords car park.  I was willing to drive up with nets to help but parking in London is a real issue and virtually impossible around the Houses of Parliament.  You risk far more than a parking ticket there.  They had tasered a man earlier that day and I certainly didn’t want to leave my car somewhere illegal – they might carry out a controlled explosion!  Adele assured me that the police on duty said I could park right outside in a lay-by.  I felt a bit dubious but set off anyway and sure enough they were true to their word and let me park outside. There were a hundred plus people staging a Brexit demo outside yet the police were so good to allow us in and permit us to run round the car park trying to catch the tiny coot.  We had to ask members of the House of Lords a couple of times not to drive off as the coot was under their car!  One even offered us the use of his torch but shining a bright light on the bird was not a good idea.  It really was a tricky rescue as although the coot couldn’t fly he very easily could have got through the railings and onto the road.  However, with teamwork, some skill and experience and a lot of good fortune we caught the hungry, injured coot.  The security staff that had called LWP were delighted as he had been there a couple of days. They also told us they plan to make a donation to LWP and the Swan Sanctuary.  I firmly believe this surreal rescue would only happen in England and shows Met Police really are the best!  A happy result all round.

Captured – the elusive coot.
Text received by Adele from grateful staff at House of Lords


November Update

Cygnet chased into this small body of water and unable to fly out.
The resident pen ensuring the intruder doesn’t attempt to get on ‘her’ lake.
Greylag having his jaw fixed – now almost fully recovered.

I was unable to drive for all of November.  It wasn’t great but I certainly got a lot of exercise walking.  If I didn’t rescue I probably could manage without a car as the public transport is good but although I may have got away with bringing a woodcock  or two home on the train anything larger would be a problem!

I did lots of checks before I returned to work and went out with another rescuer a few times on rescues.  The same pattern continued with cygnets being chased off and flying into other swans’ territories.  One young swan flew from Greenland Dock into a neighbouring family.  He got pushed into a small body of water where he was quite safe for a day or so but had no chance of flying out of so needed removing.

A couple of ladies I had recently got to know started going to Wimbledon Park to do checks for me.  It was not a park they usually went to but once they knew about my injury they made regular visits. Naturally, I contacted them when a member of the public had called to say that they were concerned about a Greylag goose that couldn’t feed.  It tried to eat and appeared very hungry but the food fell from its mouth.  We arranged to meet in my lunch break but when I arrived they had already caught the goose.  I took him home and he went to the sanctuary that evening. The poor goose had a broken jaw, probably caused by a flying accident.  If left he would undoubtedly grown weaker and weaker as he was unable to eat. Well done to Emily and Heather for catching the goose.  Without your intervention he would have become so weak a fox may have got him or he would have died of starvation.  He is now well on the road to a full recovery.

November – aka woodcock month!


I didn’t expect to carry out any rescues in November but I forgot it was Woodcock month!  It’s virtually the only month that rescuers pick up woodcock.  Although not water birds I do get a lot of calls passed across to me about these lovely little visitors. They are migrating to England, for our milder winters, from as far as Russia.  They are exhausted and thin and often if they get blown off course they can be too weak to take off again.  They also crash in to high buildings when they are fatigued which I guess is why they are often picked up in Central London.  It may also be that they are following the Thames as a point of navigation. Woodcock are very stressy birds and do not do well in captivity.  Through trial, error and research I now know the best thing is to release them within 24 hours.  They never seem to want to eat while in captivity yet in the wild they can eat up to their body weight on a daily basis!  Keeping them overnight to rest then releasing them, as soon as possible, seems to give them the best chance of survival.  There is a huge park near me that has a woodcock population so this is where mine now go.  If they want to continue on their migratory  journey then they can but they also have the choice to stay in a park with other visiting woodcock.  I miss the water bird rescues* but I certainly enjoy the privilege of helping these shy little woodcock – a species that I would probably never normally see.

Thank you to London Wildlife Protection https://www.londonwildlifeprotection.org for assisting in the woodcock rescues and Paula Redmond for the amazing photo.

*I have helped with a few rescues -or maybe interfered- which will go on my next post!

Where there’s a will there’s a way!

Having had hand surgery and therefore, not able to drive I thought I wouldn’t be involved in any water bird rescues.  I have had some calls to check swans and at least I can report back whether a rescue is necessary or not.  The Swan Sanctuary asked me to check on a lone swan by the Tate Modern, on the South Bank and, initially, when I went there, he seemed fine albeit very hungry.  He clambered out of the Thames and onto the sandy bank when he spied me feeding the geese.  There’s a lack of vegetation in that part of the Thames but there was nothing stopping him from flying off if he wanted to.

A week later the Swan Sanctuary received several calls about the same swan.  I spoke to one of the callers at length and it appeared that the swan had been lying on a wall for over 4 hours.  Members of the public were touching the swan and taking selfies with it.  It never hissed nor raised its wings which is far from normal.  Rescuers are very thin on the ground in London and there was no-one available to go.  Gill said she would come but she lives in Chingford and the ETA was over 90 minutes.  I knew I couldn’t pick up the swan but thought at least if I got up there I could help in some way.  Two lovely couples were happy to stay with the swan until I arrived.  One couple were visiting from Germany and the other from Surrey, up in London for a Christmas Market.  Instead, between them, they spent hours in the rain, standing with the swan and trying to get some help for it.

I got the train to Waterloo and walked the rest of the way, forgetting just how far it is. The swan was very lethargic with his head dropped.  It was so sad to see as only a few days earlier he had appeared fine.  The people with the swan were sensible and I had brought a swan wrap and bag.  With my guidance they were happy to pick him up and get him in the  swan wrap.  Success!  The swan was safe.  By now Gill was only about 40 minutes away so we got the swan to a quiet road where she could park and meet us.   I did say to the couples that if they wanted to get on with their night out i was happy to wait on my own for Gill but they insisted on waiting saying they would see the rescue through!  And as one of the husbands commented “Had we left it my wife wouldn’t have spoken to me for the rest of the week-end”.

Upon arrival Gill decided to drive straight on to the sanctuary, in Shepperton, as we were both concerned for him.  He was so weak and hungry but it was reassuring to see him eat inside the car.  He was ravenous and despite the unnatural environment he found himself in he was happy to tuck into some food.  Always a good sign.

The poorly swan
Lying here for hours
Lovely German tourist carrying him to safety
Safe in Gill’s car

Once admitted to the Swan Sanctuary he was examined and there was nothing obviously wrong with him although he clearly wasn’t ‘right’.  He had a BTO ring and details revealed he was an elderly swan – 11yrs old.  I had also rescued him a few years ago when he was involved in a territorial and got attacked by another swan. This was only a few miles away so we knew this was ‘his’ area.

He has now made great progress and has been introduced to an elderly lady swan who lost her mate earlier this year.  She resides at Southwark Park but was brought to the sanctuary due to a botulism outbreak in the park lake  It has now been dredged and the plan is to release them both back to the park.  Fingers crossed it works out for them.