When jet lag helped save a cygnet

By Helen Stoddard – Thames21 Volunteer

Helen Stoddard is part of Thames21’s citizen science army – a Thames River Watch volunteer. She recounts the time she rescued a cygnet trapped in plastic.

It was 5.30am and I was wide awake. I’d just flown back from New Zealand and was suffering from jetlag, so I gave up on sleep and looked out of the window. My flat overlooks Poplar Dock and Blackwall Basin where there are many birds, including a pair of swans. I noticed one of the adults was alone with one of its cygnets. As I watched, I saw the youngster keep dropping its head below the water, as if it had fainted, and remain there for an alarming amount of time, before righting itself again. This was not typical behaviour. After watching this happen repeatedly, I became concerned.

I called my friend Gill from the Swan Sanctuary. Gill recommended getting him out of the water, dried off and kept warm until she could get there to help. Easy, right?

My partner joined me and, armed with a mop, fended off the male adult swan which was flapping and hissing wildly. He managed to nudge the cygnet along to the shallows where I grabbed him. Fortunately, the cygnets were young and small – about the size of a large duck. And terribly fluffy and cute.

“The plastic wrapped round his body and disappeared into his mouth”

Popping him safely into a cardboard box, I saw that he was tangled in fine-gauge fishing line. It was wrapped around his body, his bill and then disappeared into his mouth. A sinker was still attached to the line and its weight must have been dragging him under the water.

Cygnet wrapped in a towel asleep in the bath
The rescued cygnet kept warm in a towel [Credit: Helen Stoddard]
I took him home, cut off the sinker and, guided by Gill, tipped him so any water in his lungs could run out. I then gently dried him off. After wrapping him up, I popped him in my empty bath on top of a warmed wheat bag. After a little nap, he started to preen himself. A welcome sign. But the line going into his mouth was still a worry.

Gill arrived and checked him over. Palpating his neck gently, she couldn’t locate anything problematic but didn’t remove the line in case pulling it out caused damage. She drove him to the Swan Sanctuary for further assessment.

“There were some happy tears”

There, an X-ray showed there was nothing present in the cygnet’s neck and they removed the line without surgical intervention. Gill returned with him right away, releasing him from the cage and placing him in the water. He was immediately accepted back with his family. Such a joyful moment! It would have been awful had they rejected him. Gill and I hugged and there were some happy tears.

family of swans swimming in Poplar Dock
The swan family reunited [Credit: Helen Stoddard]
He quickly got in amongst his siblings and soon we had no idea which of the six he was. Whenever I saw them again, so big with feet nearly the size of dinner plates, I’d wonder which of them it was that I’d had in my bath all warm and snuggly.

If you see a bird in need of help, please contact the Swan Sanctuary: 01932 240790

Read more about the issue of plastic pollution in the Thames in our Thames River Watch report.