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Hamburg’s Swan Boats Escort Birds to Warm Winter Pond

Every winter since 1674, Hamburg’s full-time “swan father” has taken care of its flock of 120 mute swans (Cygnus olor). The current swan father, Olaf Nieß, uses blue motorboats loaded with hay to ferry the flock to a pond that’s kept free of ice. The city also gives the Hamburg Schwanenwesen winter food and even their own website, too. 

The idea goes back to a myth that as long as one swan lived in Hamburg the city would prosper.

Olaf Nieß, who inherited the job from his father, learned that he only has to move the young, difficult swans. The rest know the routine. When he shows up with his blue boats labelled in emergency services type lettering ” Schwan” (swan) on Schwanenvesen (Swan Boat), they go to their winter place. He catches the unccoperative swan over two or three days, tying their feet with a velcro strap and laying them gently on the straw. The swans stay in Eppendorfer Mill Pond, which the city keeps from freezing over by pumping the warmer water from the bottom to the top. Other migrating geese stop by, too. They forage a little for themselves, but the city makes sure they have grain. Then in March, when the main water area is ice free again. 

Olaf Nieß told the Hamburg Morgen Post that the flock stays at about 120 because some chicks naturally die off. Some swans do get removed–but just to be sent as goodwill gifts around the world. The only real trouble the swans face is flying into buildings or run-ins with traffic or  fishing nets and hooks.  The swans often pick unusual places around the city–windowboxes, traffic islands, tugboats and highrise terraces. The city also has a nice animal rescue and rehabilitation service that raises 300-500 birds a year–not just swans, but all types of birds.

It’s great to see a city appreciate its waterfowl–instead of putting up signs forbidding anyone from feeding them, as has become the trend. 

Find more places  to see birds and animals in Europe

Photo courtesy of Qiao-Da-Ye


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