Mooney Goes Wild, Sunday June 25th 2017
On Mooney Goes Wild tonight...
There are few sights more beautiful to behold in nature, than the graceful, elegant swan. An ethereal vision of purity and dignity, this great white bird has been a source of inspiration to poets, writers, musicians and artists throughout time. Swans are seen as romantic symbols of love and fidelity around the world, because when they mate, they mate for life. These majestic creatures hold a key place in ancient Irish tales such as The Children of Lir, in Greek mythology in stories such as Leda and the Swan. They’ve inspired some of our greatest poets such as William Butler Years, as well as the composer of one of the most romantic and beloved ballets of all time, Tchaikovsky and his classic masterpiece, Swan Lake.
Altogether, there are seven species of swan, and in Ireland, we have three which occur naturally: the Mute Swan (which is resident here), as well as the Whooper Swan and the Bewick’s Swan, which are both migratory.
Another particular favourite is the Trumpeter swan, the biggest swan in the world and, as its name suggests, it trumpets triumphantly with a haunting and most distinctive call.
A Trumpeter Swan takes flight; photo: Skeeze / Pixabay
The Trumpeter’s story is a dramatic one. Hunting and trapping drove these birds to the edge of extinction in the southern United States. In 1932, they numbered just 69 birds, with an estimated 2,000 more in Alaska. Mercifully, three years later, a reserve was established and slowly numbers began to increase and the birds were transported to areas such as Oregon, Nevada and South Dakota to be reintroduced to some of their old haunts.
However, one rather odd problem remained. The baby Trumpeters are taught their migration routes by their parents - but when birds are transported to new or, in this case, old locations, they miss the geography lesson and so have no idea where they should go at migration time. As a result, they frequently fly off in the most inappropriate directions.
Dr. Sladen feeds Sur le Toit, star of "Fly Away Home." (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
At Airlie in Virginia, a revolutionary technique was introduced, with newly fledged Trumpeters being trained to fly behind micro-light aircraft. In 2001, our very own Dr. Richard Collins visited Airlie to learn more about how micro-lights were working as surrogate parents. There, Richard talked to Dr Bill Sladen, who was the director of the Trumpeter Swan project. Bill's work inspired the 1996 Hollywood movie Fly Away Home, on which he acted as Technical Advisor:
But there has been some very sad news: we’ve recently heard that on May 29th this year, just a few weeks ago, Bill Sladen passed away at his home in Warrenton, Virginia, in May at the impressive age of 96 years...
Tonight, we pay tribute to the pioneering work of Bill Sladen, as Derek and Richard muse in Malahide, in the company of a bevy of mute swans...
Richard beside the mute swans of Malahide...
To read more about Bill Sladen's work on trumpeter swans and microlight surrogates, click here, and to read The Washington Post's obituary of Bill Sladen, click here.
About the documentary The Trumpeter Swan:
(2001) Swan doctor, Richard Collins, travels to North America to view the 'Trumpeter' swan. The Trumpeter is the largest swan in the world and the heaviest flying animal. An all-white bird with a black bill and a black eye, it lives in the wilderness of sub-arctic North America, particularly in Alaska.
In the programme Richard Collins visits Airlie and talks to Dr. Bill Sladen, director of the Trumpeter Swan project, and his dedicated staff. He also talks to the 'swan-mammas' who dress up in white suits before approaching the swans (so that the birds retain their fear of people) and the pilot (also dressed up for the occasion) who takes to the skies each day with his swan trainees.