Desert Predators Threaten Sun City Swan Population

By Stina Sieg
Published: Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 11:07am
Audio icon Download mp3 (5.18 MB)
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The swans of Sun City West have taken a hit this year. Six have died at the claws of coyotes and bobcats this year.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Jeanne Moore, left, and Cher Petersen give Prudence a shot - and some loving attention. The swan was attacked by a coyote about six weeks ago.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Prudence is going by the nickname "Pouty Prudie" these days, because she looks so sad in her cage. Normally, she's known as a pretty feisty bird.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Swans like Prudence could fly a little bit from predators, but really have no other defenses against sharp teeth and claws.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Jackie Van Ogtrop is the wildlife services coordinator for Sun City West. She says residents love the swans - and would not support downsizing the program.

Snowbirds aren’t the only species that call Sun City West home. Swans were introduced to the west Valley retirement community about two decades ago and quickly became a fixture. You can still see plenty of the birds gliding on waterways that wind through the golf courses. But this year, predators have taken a bite out of the swan population.

On a recent morning, the sun sparkled on one of the community’s many lakes and a group of swan wranglers cooed around a chain-link cage. The bird inside sported a black bootie over one of her webbed feet. Six weeks ago, she was bitten by a coyote and now the wound had become infected.

She tried to walk, but just flapped and flailed instead. Her name is Prudence, but these days people are calling her “Pouty Prudie.” With her head slumped down against her bright, white body, she really did look sad. But she’s one of the lucky ones.

Jackie Van Ogtrop is the wildlife services coordinator here. Not only are swans being attacked by coyotes, she said, but also bobcats. That’s a first. Six swans have been killed this year, including one baby, known as a cygnet.

“Joseph and the cygnet that went was unnamed, but one of Joseph’s children then,” Van Ogtrop said, naming off the dead swans. “There was Birdy and Grace and Opie and Apollo.”

And each one was cared for by someone like Cher Petersen. She’s the assistant swan coordinator and the one who fed Opie for 10 years. She remembers how he’d eat right out of a cup in her hand.

“He loved anybody, except the workers,” Petersen said, smiling. “The truck would come by and he’d be out there, chasing them. I think they teased him a little bit.”

Last month he was found floating in the lake, dead, with bite marks on his neck. Petersen misses him, but tries to see a bigger picture. After all, both swans and their predators are wild animals.

“You know, different people say, ‘Well, why are you doing this if the coyotes are going to kill ’em,’” she said. “Well, it’s the food chain.”

And Petersen believes it’s not her place to intervene. Caretakers do get a little involved in the swan’s lives, clipping their wings and carefully dividing the birds, mostly to protect against inbreeding. But beyond that, they try to let animals be animals.

It’s a mantra echoed by the Arizona Game and Fish department.

“You know this stuff happens every day,” said Darren Julian, a wildlife specialist for the department. “Problem is that it doesn’t happen in clear view of you either, though.”

Julian said that in recent years, more bobcats have moved into urban areas and all predators tend to become bolder the longer they live around humans. Killing them won’t work and neither will relocating them. What does work, Julian said, is showing them who’s boss.

“If you don’t want a bobcat hanging around your property, just turn the hose on ’em and soak ’em down,” Julian said. He explained they don’t like getting wet, just like house cats.

If you’ve got an unwanted coyote on your hands, Julian recommended using a 10-to-1 mixture of water and ammonia — and a high-powered squirt gun.

“If coyotes are afraid of people and bobcats are afraid of people, really, everybody wins,” he said.

It’s called tough love. And while it can’t bring back swans like Opie, it might keep his children from meeting the same fate.

If you like this story, Donate Now!