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How I adopted Nijinsky, my son the swan
Gilbert Cant
April 06, 1970
A U.S. birdman finds parenthood at Peter Scott's famed Wildfowl Trust
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April 06, 1970

How I Adopted Nijinsky, My Son The Swan

A U.S. birdman finds parenthood at Peter Scott's famed Wildfowl Trust

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When I drove into the well-landscaped grounds of Artist-Conservationist Peter Scott's Wildfowl Trust in Gloucestershire one typical English September day (dull, damp, dismal), I had nothing more in mind than viewing his remarkable living collection of bird species. I certainly had no thought of becoming a foster father to one of his swans. But now that I am, I can go to Slimbridge in midwinter and sit in Scott's heated observatory and view my adopted son through a pane of glass, just like any proud father in a maternity ward.

Scott has assembled, in Slimbridge, the finest collection of waterfowl to be found anywhere: 1,500 birds of more than 130 species, gathered from around the world and living now on 44 acres of Trust lands, half of them under water. The son of Antarctic Explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died in 1912 after reaching the South Pole, Peter Scott's paintings of birds are known throughout the world, and his efforts in behalf of endangered bird species have gained him many naturalist admirers.

Scott has the ornithological equivalent of a green thumb—webbed, perhaps?—and in Slimbridge, a quarter of a mile from the River Severn's majestic estuary, he has raised thousands of valuable waterfowl, among them more Ne-Ne geese than could be found in the Hawaiian Islands—their native habitat. In fact, Scott shipped 144 of this endangered species back to Maui to restock the island. He has at the Trust all six of the world's species of flamingos, and he has bred three of them—including, last year, the rare James's Andean flamingo, which had never reproduced in captivity.

Why does he do it? Scott has enough other accomplishments to keep half a dozen men busy. He is a painter of people as well as birds, he is a glider pilot, a figure skater, an International-class dinghy champion and was rated Britain's top yachtsman to take the helm of Sovereign in her challenge for the America's Cup in 1964. Scott's place in the English Establishment was assured from birth. His godfather was Sir James ( Peter Pan) Barrie, and as a child Scott was allowed to address the Right Honorable H. H. Asquith, then Prime Minister, as Squiff.

But it is conservation that rivets Scott's mercurial attentions today. A keen wild-fowler as a youth, he has laid aside the shotgun for the pen and brush. He is motivated by the statistics of wildlife attrition, as well as esthetics. Since the dodo became extinct in 1681, no fewer than 100 species of birds have died out, Scott says, and there are at least as many threatened today. "Probably the only answer is a kind of Noah's ark," he says, "capturing some and taking them to a part of the world where they can live in safety." He has already done this for an endangered breed of Arabian antelope, a variety of oryx, as well as the Ne-Ne goose.

Scott has every imaginable kind of swan at his preserve: more North American trumpeters (once a threatened species) than I ever found in Alberta or Montana, as well as countless European whoopers. South American blacknecks and the ill-tempered Australian blacks. The least known of the Northern white species is Bewick's swan, the one—thanks to my having joined Scott's adoption scheme—that has become my favorite. Because of its size (only four feet from bill tip to tail vs. five feet for the trumpeter and whooper), it rates mostly disparaging adjectives in the bird guides. But Scott discovered that the Bewick's (named for engraver Thomas Bewick) has a characteristic that makes it the most interesting of all the swans and most valuable for scientific research and conservation—not to mention adoption.

Although Cygnus bewickii was first recognized and named by Thomas Yarrell in 1830, it took more than 130 years for someone to discover that no two Bewick's are alike. Peter Scott was the someone. He noticed also that the swans themselves recognize their individualism and remain loyal to mates and offspring Bewick's (pronounced Buicks) nest on the desolate arctic tundra of the Eurasian land mass from Lapland to the Kolyma River north of Petropavlovsk. As the tundra freezes, the swans take off, but stay in family groups. With their young they fan out to the south and west, many wintering in the British Isles. In 1948 a few began arriving in Slimbridge, and in 1963-64 they staged a mass invasion. Scott, studying them, noticed that the yellow coloring around the base of their bills was different in each swan, whereas other adult swans are look-alikes. With a telephoto lens, he could get a mug shot of each Bewick's as distinct as a fingerprint.

But then those hungry Bewick's—sometimes 300 at a time—began to cost the Trust a fortune. Scott figured out a plan to defray the cost of feeding each bird (about $12 per winter), by getting conservationists to adopt swans and pay for their upkeep. The unique coloration around the bill would give each adoptive parent a sense of identity with his own bird. In February 1967 he launched his appeal and soon had 63 foster parents—or, as he calls them, "swan supporters"—signed up.

The day I visited Slimbridge in September, I picked up a leaflet describing the scheme, and I soon sent my $12, along with a request that my adopted swan son be named Nijinsky. The Trust does not guarantee to give a bird the name its supporter selects, but I was lucky. As a Christmas card, I got an outline drawing of a Bewick's head by Scott (opposite), with Nijinsky's unique bill pattern painted in by one of his assistants and a description of Nijinsky's arrival in Slimbridge. He came in with his mate on the pond at Scott's preserve, called (what else?) Swan Lake, in the evening of last Nov. 17. The mate was timorous and flew off, most likely to the wider spaces of the estuary. But Nijinsky landed and stayed overnight. Next day he went to look for her and brought her back. This time she decided to stay. Her name is Caroline.

Among the 225 swan supporters already enrolled are several others who live in the U.S., including one in Alaska. If we foster parents can get to Gloucestershire before the end of this week, Scott informs us, we can study the habits and social behavior of our offspring and listen to their swan music, all from the sheltered comfort of the swan observatory. After that, they depart on their 2,000-to-3,000-mile odyssey to arctic Russia. Scott describes the winter scene at Swan Lake:

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