Winter waterfowl woes

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Feb 01, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell The portion of Lake Junaluska that was still solid ice was flocked with ducks and swans Thursday morning.

Lake Junaluska had its ducks in a row on Thursday morning when flocks of coots, ducks and swans congregated on a melting piece of ice on the lake.

While much of the lake was covered with ice early last week, most of the ice had melted within several days, apparently to the dismay of the waterfowl spending the winter at Haywood County's most-used lake. On a sunny afternoon, flocks of feathered friends were scurrying along the edge of the lake just near the Memorial Chapel or resting on islands of ice.

It's been more than a year since signs were posted around the lake advising visitors to not feed the ducks. The growing numbers were creating numerous problems and it was hoped the ducks would  fall into a normal migratory pattern such as their non-Lake Junaluska cousins.

Buddy Young, director of the public works department at Lake Junaluska, said that hasn't happened yet.

“We’re hoping they will get their migrating instinct back and move on,” Young said. “They’ve almost become domesticated.”

On the bright side, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of waterfowl on the lake since a feeding ban went into effect. But even with a no feeding policy, there are still dozens of waterfowl struggling to brave the icy waters this winter.

Swan security

While the lake's remaining ducks may be getting along fine, winter weather and freezing waters are very threatening to the five domesticated swans that live year-around at Lake Junaluska. Unlike the too-large flock of ducks that remain at the lake, the swan population is nurtured and cultivated.

Lake resident Ken Zulla has taken on the responsibility of making sure the swans thrive, especially during the winter. Even with 0-degree temperatures, and threats like a frozen lake and swan-eating mud turtles, Zulla has found a way to take care of “Mac,” the ring leader, and the four other swans for the past 10 years.

“This winter has been severe,” Zulla said. “When the lake froze overnight, three of the swans were trapped under the ice and were frozen in there and couldn’t get out. What I did was I threw bread all around the geese and the ducks acted as ice breakers and freed them.”

The frozen water is also making it very difficult for the swans to eat out of their feeding buckets.

A few times a week, volunteers transfer cracked corn or chicken pellets into the feeding buckets, which the swans recognize as their feeding place. However, the buckets have been frozen and useless the past two weeks, Zulla said.

“I’ve been going to the lake every day feeding them,” Zulla said. “I core out apples and put chicken pellets and corn inside the apple and bread and then I freeze it over night. Then I throw it out to them and it breaks apart in the water.”

Residents on Lake Junaluska pay for the swans’ food each month, and about 15 residents take turns feeding them each week. Proceeds from the annual flea market also helps fund swan food.

It’s clear that Zulla takes pride in caring for the swans by the way he tells his rescue stories.

One story that stands out in his mind was the time he captured “Mac” with his bare hands and removed three travel hooks that were caught on his body. Zulla then held Mac in the car while being driven to the veterinarian’s office for treatment; he said he could tell that Mac was grateful by the way it was resting after the treatment.

The involvement with the swans may be making the swans dependent on humans for survival, but Zulla said it was the responsibility of the volunteers to care for them. He said the five swans were mute swans, and therefore were considered domestic.

“I know this is not the best thing for everybody if we’re trying diminish human dependency, but they should have migrated by now,” Zulla said. “I’m just trying to keep things as good as possible.”