Dan Rattiner's Stories

New York Mute Swan Flying School Takes Flight in the Hamptons

News Item: The New York State DEC has announced it intends to kill all mute swans in the State of New York by 2025. The mute swans are an invasive species. They take over ponds and lakes and prevent native species from settling at them.

I was driving down Main Street in East Hampton the other day when I saw ahead of me a small white car with writing on the side parked next to Town Pond, and a man in a white uniform trying to entice the two white swans that live in that pond to come over and take a tasty treat he had in his hand. A number of canvasback ducks were in the pond, watching the proceedings.

Curious, I drove over and parked behind the white car, got out and started to walk over.

“Stop right there,” the man whispered. I stopped. “You’ll break the spell. I think I’ve got him.”

One swan had waddled over and was looking at the treat, but wasn’t getting too close. He moved his head from side to side.

“Easy now, big fellow,” the man said. Then he made a chirping noise. Hi. Hi. Hi. “They can hear,” he said to me. “Just because they are mute doesn’t mean they can’t hear.”

With that, the swan broke off the encounter. He turned around and waddled back into the pond, turning when he got in to sit down and float side-by-side with the female that was there.

“Now look what you’ve done,” the man said to me, glowering.

I had a close look at the side of the white car. The wording on the side read, NY MUTE SWAN FLYING SCHOOL.

“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.

“About a week.”

“Any luck?”

“Not yet. First I’ve got to gain their trust. And that takes patience.”

“How long have you been down here today?”

“About an hour. Wait and you’ll see. He’ll be back. That’s what he does—he comes up and sniffs around, then goes back. Then he comes out again.”

“And you’re teaching the swans to fly?”

“You betcha. This is going to be a big business. That’s why I named it the New York Mute Swan Flying School instead of, say, the East End Swan Flying School. There’s mute swans everywhere in the state, many flocked up there in the north along the shores of Lake Ontario. I want everyone in the state to hire the New York Mute Swan Flying School.”

“I see in smaller letters under the name of the school, it says ‘Mobile Unit 2.’”

“On the other door it says ‘Mobile Unit 3.’”

“Is there a Mobile Unit 1?”

“No. Just this one car, ‘2’ and ‘3.’ I’m trying to give the impression we’re a large organization already.”

“I think people who love the swans might be willing to take you on.”

“That’s the hope.”

“How are you going to teach them to fly, once you gain their trust?”

“I run along side them. I have a set of snowy white wings in the backseat. I strap them on. I run along with them besides me and I flap, and I say hi, hi, hi.”

“You’ve tried this?”

“Indeed I have, though not with swans, with turkeys. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I give them treats, they see me coming and come over for them, I get them to run alongside and then I flap my wings and say hi, hi, hi and off they go. It’s quite something to see. Ever see a turkey fly?”

“No. But I’ve heard they can do it if they really want to.”

“Turkeys have 4-foot wingspans. They weigh about 30 pounds. It’s really hard, but they can do it. These swans are about the same, and they have 6-foot wingspans. Ever see the swans when they spread their wings?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“They spread them to air them out, get the bugs out. They’ll do it on windy days. They’ll stand on the shore there on their big webbed feet and just spread out their wings like that. All the bugs, all the dust, everything gets whisked out and they get all clean. They hold the pose for 20 seconds or more.”


“Who are you anyway? Live around here?”

I told him my name, and that I was thinking of doing an article on his service, and he told me that would be great. He held out his hand.

“Fred Millerstone,” he said. We shook hands.

“I live on Three Mile Harbor Road,” I said, “and we have swans up there, in the harbor.”

“Didn’t know they had swans up there,” he said. “Want me to come up there and help them fly off? This rule they just passed, we’ve got to do something.”

“How much do you charge?”

“It’s $30 an hour. And that includes the mobile unit. I haven’t got any of them to fly just yet, but these two here, I think, are pretty close. I’ll get them to fly soon. Figure another four or five hours.”

“How many hours has it been so far?”

“I’ve put in 10 hours.”

“You’ve been hired to do this?”

“Oh yes. The village is paying for this service. And later today I’m inking a contract with the Nature Conservancy for some swans up on Bull Path, and the Long Pond Nature Conservancy was here yesterday and they are interested. We’ve got to get these swans able to get the hell out of the state when the time comes.”

“Do you give a discount for a private individual?” I asked.

“No, the teaching is the same either way. A lesson is a lesson, and a swan is a swan. Put down a deposit, I’m looking for three hours, $90. Patience, as I told you. It’s a virtue in the swan world. Us swan people all know that.”

At that moment, the male swan stood up in the shallow water, waddled out, and up the lawn to Fred, tilted his head a bit, focused one beady red eye on Fred’s hand, and gave his head a sort of shiver. It was quite dramatic. He was just two feet away.

Hi, hi, hi,” Fred said. He held out his right hand, which still held the treat in it. “Hi, hi, hi.”

The swan nodded approvingly, and came closer. Now he was just a foot away.

“Be very quiet,” Fred whispered. “Quiet. Don’t move.”

I held perfectly still.

And at that moment, 100 yards away and about 100 feet up, we saw two large white birds come gliding in over the trees, circle around the pond and settled themselves down into the water at the far end. They were identical to the two mute swans we were watching.

I looked at Fred. “Yours?” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

Then, finally he spoke.

“Here, let me give you my card,” he said.

And as the male swan just stood there a few feet away, he fished into his pocket with
his left hand, came up with one, and held it out to me.

As he did, the male swan, in a lightning-fast move, shot his neck and head to the left, snatched up the card in his beak, walked back down into the water and settled down next to his mate.

Then he ate it.

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