Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Woman sticks her neck out for swan
RESCUE: INJURED SWAN AVOIDS UGLY ENDING
BY EDIE GROSS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The future did not look good for Bella the day Pat Licata scooped her out of a creek inside the Lake of the Woods subdivision.
One of the mute swan’s legs appeared broken, and she was unable to walk.
Wildlife rehabilitators suggested she probably needed to be euthanized.
But Licata, a resident of the Orange County community, is nothing if not persistent. That’s how she came to be standing in the Locust Grove post office on a Thursday in December with Bella in a box postmarked for Chicago.
“It’s not every day you get a swan in your post office,” said clerk Lisa Di Giorgio, who handled the unusual package.
“We get chickens and pigeons all the time here, but never a swan. I remember telling the driver in back, ‘Take it easy driving her.’”
In the end, Bella’s survival would depend on Licata’s unwillingness to give up and her ability to recruit others who felt the same way, from Lake of the Woods residents to national swan experts and even postal employees.
“I must’ve made 500 phone calls. It was completely all-consuming,” said Licata, a Realtor. “Thank God real estate was slow that week because I was working on swan real estate.”
Bella’s story actually starts with Carl, the swan responsible for sparking Licata’s interest in the regal birds.
Licata and her husband, John, were living in Reston in 2008 when they bought their waterfront home in Lake of the Woods as a weekend getaway.
Carl, an older mute swan, adopted the couple immediately, hanging out on their back porch and occasionally knocking on their back door. Once, when Licata was sitting in a chair in the backyard, Carl strutted over and plopped down beside her.
She was so startled that she ran, tipping the chair over in the process. Carl simply waited for her to return, which she did in short order.
“We just sat there next to each other and that hooked me,” recalled Licata. “To think you could be so close to wildlife and, in a weird way, establish a relationship.”
Licata began researching swans online to learn more about the birds’ habits and temperament. And she started naming each one that ventured into her cove.
There was Bubba, a massive male with a big knob on his bill. And Morgan, a timid swan with one foot larger than the other. And Spencer, a cantankerous fellow who pals around with a petite female Licata calls Penelope.
By 2009, Licata and her husband had moved to Lake of the Woods full time. Carl would follow John around the yard while he used his leaf blower. When the couple would get into their boat, the swan would escort them to the mouth of the cove and then wait there for them to return.
Then, that December, Carl vanished. Licata figures he succumbed to the winter cold, but her feathered friend’s disappearance made her that much more determined to look out for the swans that remained at Lake of the Woods.
Last November, Licata was contacted by a neighbor who spotted an ill swan on the lake. Licata named the swan Lucy and took her to several wildlife rehabilitators, but the bird died a few days later.
Licata wrote about Lucy for Lake Currents, the Lake of the Woods newsletter, and urged residents to call her if they spotted other birds in trouble.
In early December, that’s just what Holly Marshall did after her father, Fred, spotted a swan that appeared to be dragging itself through their yard.
By the time Licata arrived, the swan had returned to a nearby creek and swum off. On a hunch, Licata checked another creek a few blocks over. That’s where she spotted Bella.
“I said to Bella, ‘Stay right there. Don’t leave. I’ve got to go home and change my clothes and get a crate. Be right back,’” said Licata.
Meanwhile, homeowner Jim Simprini had come out of his house to see what this woman was doing in his backyard on a rainy afternoon. He was surprised to find her conversing with a swan.
“She asked me if I had any bread,” recalled Simprini, who was talked into tossing breadcrumbs to Bella until Licata could return.
He also lent Licata a pair of firefighter boots so she could wade into the creek, drape a towel around Bella and scoop her up.
“Then it was, ‘OK, now what do I do?’” recalled Licata.
A HOME FOR BELLA
Licata’s first call was to Kay Lee Charleton, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Spotsylvania County who had tried to help Lucy, the sick swan.
Charleton said it appeared that Bella’s left leg had been broken. It had started to heal improperly, making it difficult for her to walk.
Charleton didn’t think there was anything she could do, but she encouraged Licata to take Bella to the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce, about 90 minutes away.
Unfortunately, the diagnosis there was the same.
But Licata wasn’t ready to give up. She called Sheila Bolin, CEO of The Regal Swan Foundation in Florida, which sponsors research and publishes information on how to care for swans in captivity.
After hearing of Bella’s foot injury, Bolin wasn’t optimistic.
“In the waterfowl world, that’s usually the kiss of death,” said Bolin. “They have to be able to enter and exit water or they’ll die.”
Still, like Licata, she wasn’t ready to call it quits.
“Pat was just beside herself,” said Bolin. “The last thing you want to do is put down a bird that might recover.”
So Bolin called Bob Knox, who raises border collies and swans to chase Canada geese off golf courses and other large properties. A swan lover since childhood, Knox has also been known to house injured birds on his property in North Barrington, Ill., about 40 miles northwest of Chicago.
“I said, ‘Bob, would you take another swan?’ He said, ‘Oh, what the heck? What’s another bird?’” said Bolin.
‘A LONG SHOT’
Now the trick was getting Bella to Illinois. Licata considered flying her there, but the airline required that Bella be placed in a crate big enough to stand in—even though Bella couldn’t stand.
In the end, Knox recommended mailing Bella, something Licata didn’t even know was an option.
It took several more phone calls to find a swan box manufacturer who was willing to sell Licata just one box rather than the usual dozen. All that was left to do was wait for the box to arrive.
Meanwhile, Bella had been alternating between stints in Licata’s master bathtub—much to the annoyance of her cats—and Charleton’s place. Even though she couldn’t walk, her appetite was strong, which was a good sign.
“Most swans are very hard-headed, and you have to coax them to eat,” said Charleton. “This one ate like gangbusters. She was eating me out of house and home.”
The day of her trip, Bella enjoyed one more swim in Licata’s bathtub before being carefully placed in the shipping container, which Charleton lined with eggcrate foam.
Licata wasn’t sure Bella would survive the journey, but there weren’t any other options.
“It was a long shot that I was willing to take,” she said. “The coolest thing was when I took her to the post office—employees and the postmaster and even customers were so excited, they were cheering for her.”
Postal employees made sure Bella arrived safely, and over the last two months, she’s thrived, said Knox.
When she arrived, she weighed 11 pounds and couldn’t walk. Now, she’s up to 26 pounds—thanks, in part, to a romaine lettuce habit—and can get around just fine using one leg and one of her wings, Knox said.
She’s also got a boyfriend, a swan Licata calls Beauregard.
As a Realtor, Licata finds people new homes all the time. Finding a safe place for Bella was just an extension of that, but she said she couldn’t have done it without help from the community.
“It was so cool,” she said. “So many people worked for this one swan to have a chance at life.”
In looking for a home for Bella, Pat Licata relied on help from The Regal Swan Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit dedicated to the humane treatment of swans, particularly those in captivity.
On March 6, officials with the group will travel to England to rescue swans along the Thames River with Her Majesty’s swan warden, Christopher Perrins, and build nests at Abbotsbury Swannery, one of the largest natural swanneries in the world. The weeklong visit will be filmed for the ABC program “Born to Explore.”
You can follow their journey on The Regal Swan Foundation’s Facebook page. For more information, visit theregalswan.com.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428