By Curt Yeomans
Three swans glide across Swan Lake everyday at Clayton State University.
Sometimes, visitors will sit near the banks of the lake, and the swans will swim in circles in front of their guests. It's a subtle hint that the swans want food, and they think the guests have it.
Other times, the adult, male swan will walk among the students in the grass around the university's Athletic and Fitness Center. There have been several swans, and their cygnets (baby swans), who have called Swan Lake home over the last 12 years.
To some people at the university, the swans have become part of campus life at Clayton State.
"I don't know what this university would be like without these swans, they are so ingrained at the university that we're used to them," said Paul Bailey, director of media and printing services at the university and the university's unofficial guru on the swans.
Clayton State got it's first swans, named Rhett and Scarlett, from a retired professor in 1995. By 1997, both swans had passed away, and were replaced with Ashley and Melanie. Melanie died in January 1999, and was replaced by the current female swan, Belle, later that year.
Ashley died more than four years after he arrived at the university. The current adult, male swan is Belle's 4-year-old, unnamed son. They were joined by two other young males in May, but one of them died a month later, after he ate a fishing line.
So, the three swans that swim around Swan Lake at Clayton State are a family. They are joined every day by their extended family of roughly 7,000 Clayton State students, professors, staff members and administrators.
"When I think of what those swans represent to this university, the word that comes to mind is 'family,' " Bailey said. "The Clayton State family and that family are very close."
The adult, male swan is "very territorial" when it comes to protecting his family from any perceived threats, Bailey said. The male swan has no problems being around humans, and sees them as a source of free, and easy, food. But he does not like to see any of the Canadian Geese, which live on the campus as well, getting in "his lake."
If he sees them entering the lake, he swims toward them as fast as he can, his head ducked down, and the geese immediately swim to shore and get out of the lake. The male swan then climbs on shore, himself, just to make sure the geese don't come back.
"You notice the swans, because some people are afraid of them," said Brandon Johnson, vice president of Clayton State's Student Government Association. "The swans are so big, and people see how the male swan attacks the [geese.]"
One reason why the male swan might be so protective of his family is the fact that there are numerous natural threats to the swans. The danger is greatest during the first three months, when the cygnets (baby swans) are vulnerable to turtles that live in the lake, or hawks which hunt in the area. It's not uncommon to see a cygnet swimming in the lake, and suddenly go under when a turtle snatches it for a meal. Bailey said he's lost count of all the cygnets who have died early in life.
Even if a swan can survive the first three months, till it is big enough to be ignored by the turtles and hawks, there is still the threat of other animals, such as packs of wild dogs. Rhett died in 1997 when he was trying to protect his nest from a pack of dogs. After his death, Scarlett swam around the lake, her head hung low, until she died a few months later, because she ate a lead sinker on the bottom of the lake.
"If you can make it here," Bailey said. "It's like New York, you can make it anywhere."
The swans don't attack humans, though, because they are used to people coming to the lake and tossing them pieces of bread, and cracked corn. When a person comes to the lake's shoreline, the swans automatically assume a meal is about to be offered.
"They just go crazy about the bread," Bailey said. "They love it, even though it's really not good for them to eat. Bread expands when it's digested, but cracked corn is better suited for the digestive systems of the swans.
We actually have a group of women, who come to the lake at the same time every morning, and leave cracked corn for the swans."
The swans have become unofficial mascots for the university since Rhett and Scarlett went to college 12 years ago. Banners, which are hung from lamp posts around campus, feature Belle standing on the shore of Swan Lake.
"I like having the swans here," Johnson said. "They give the school a more outdoors, natural feel that some universities don't have."