Swans Freeze to Ice During Cold Snap

Residents in Hafnarfjörður, a small town just outside the capital area, have rescued multiple swans that have frozen to the icy surface of Hamarkotslækur creek during a recent spate of desperately cold weather in the country, RÚV reports. Local bird lovers in the group Fuglavinur (‘Bird friends’) encourage people to help any birds they see in such a predicament.

Swans freezing to ice is unfortunately not a rare occurrence, and it’s not even the first year the birds have frozen to the creek, which runs through the centre of Hafnarfjörður, says Guðmundur Fylkisson. Guðmundur is a member of the Facebook group Project Henrý, which has had permission to look after the birds of Hamarkotslækur for over a decade.

“Last night, a few neighbors rescued a chick—it was a swan,” Guðmundur told reporters. “Around Christmas, there were two swans [frozen stuck] here. About a year ago, maybe two, there was one that had been stuck for probably close to 24 hours.”

Young swan rescued by Guðmundur Fylkisson recuperates in local prison cell. Photo provided by Guðmundur.

Guðmundur personally freed the latter three birds, one of which, he told Iceland Review, “was put up in a prison cell over New Year’s. He was cold and worse for wear—ravens had started nibbling at him. After a two-night stay in the cell, he was tagged and then released. He’s one of the birds that’s now on the creek.”

Only in Hafnarfjörður

For whatever reason, this doesn’t happen to other birds, says Guðmundur. “It’s just the swans. I’ve never seen this happen to geese or ducks.” Moreover, this pitiable phenomenon seems to be restricted to the creek in Hafnarfjörður; Guðmundur says he’s never heard of it happening anywhere else.

Guðmundur urged residents to help any birds they can, as the swans only injure themselves when they struggle to get free. “When they get loose, they tear their feathers and bleed and when the blood and snow mix, it looks pretty bad,” he remarked. “They’ve injure their breasts doing this.”

‘They don’t bite hard’

Swans have a reputation for being aggressive, so Guðmundur understands that people might be hesitant to try and free them from the ice. But they needn’t be, he says, if certain precautions are taken.

“You have to be careful about their wings and beaks, that they don’t poke you in the eye, but they don’t bite hard. I usually just use a blanket or a towel and spread it over their wings to keep them from thrashing too much. They haven’t hurt me so far.”

Record Number of Birds Tagged in Iceland in 2018

In 2018, 21,648 birds belonging to 83 different species were tagged for research purposes in Iceland. It’s an annual record for the country, which has been tagging birds for 98 years. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History released a report on bird banding, or ringing in 2018, which gives fascinating insight into birds’ international travels.

Since 1921, 740,524 birds have been tagged in Iceland, representing 158 different species. Half of the birds tagged in 2018 were redpolls (10,945). Other species that were dominant include the redwing (2,844), snow bunting (1,290), arctic tern (950), puffin (777), and eider duck (551). Two russet backed thrushes (Hylocichla ustulata) were tagged last year, a species which had never been marked before in Iceland.

More recoveries and readings

An unusually high number of recoveries and readings were received in 2018, and 4,579 were processed. Nearly 4,000 of these, however, were so-called “own-label controls,” or birds recaptured by their taggers. A total of 138 birds tagged in Iceland were found abroad. One redpoll tagged in Akureyri, North Iceland was retrieved 1,729km (1,074mi) away later that year in Skagen, Denmark. Others were found even farther from the location where they were tagged. Three whimbrels were recovered 3,880-5,770km (2,411-3,585mi) away from their tagging location. One of these was found in Guinea-Bissau 52 days after being tagged in Iceland. One common gull which was tagged at Akureyri airport in 2016 was retrieved twice in Massachusetts in 2017 and 2018, 4,111km (2,554mi) away. A total of 88 birds with foreign tags were also recovered in Iceland last year, of which 80 had been tagged in the British Isles.

Age records broken

Many of the birds recovered broke known age records. A manx shearwater which was marked as an adult in 1991 on the Westman Islands was retrieved in the same place in 2017, 26 years later. The bird was then at least 28 years old. A greylag goose marked in 2000 near Blönduós, North Iceland, was found dead in the fall of 2017, then 17 and a half years old. A white-tailed eagle marked as a nestling in Snæfellsnes, West Iceland in 1993 was found dying in January 2018, the 24 and a half years old. The eagle was given medical attention and released back into the wild.