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.”

Why there are so many swans in Iceland?

Iceland is home to many migratory birds that breed here in the summer months and then winter abroad. In fact, Iceland’s birdlife is renowned for its diversity and many travellers come here for the sole purpose of seeing bird cliffs like Látrabjarg, Grímsey island, or the puffins of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. In fact, just one little corner of the highlands (Þjórsárver) is the single most important breeding ground for pink-footed geese in the entire world!

The same is true for swans, which have important breeding grounds in Iceland. The swan native to Iceland is known as the whooper swan in English, or simply Álft in Icelandic (recognizable in such place names as Álftanes, a peninsula near the capital region and Álftavatn, a lake along the popular hiking trail Laugavegur). Up until the 20th century, people would catch swans for eating during the season when they drop their feathers and can’t fly. The skins and feathers were sold and the feathers were used for writing. Not all feathers came from birds that had been caught, as they could also be picked in the grounds where the swans dropped their feathers. They have been protected since 1914, the same year as the white-tailed eagle received protected status. Iceland now counts around 30,000 birds, with 3-4000 breeding couples.

Icelandic whooper swans tend to summer mostly in England and Ireland, some in Scandinavia or mainland Europe, but around a tenth of them brave out the winter here in Iceland. Many swans and other waterfowl can be found around lake Mývatn in North Iceland.

Swans can often be found in and around the Reykjavík City Pond in the city centre. The entire birdlife of the pond was protected in 1919 but up until then, people would go there for hunting. In 1920, swans were brought to the pond to liven up the area. They would lay eggs there, but today, the swans on the pond are mostly non-breeding adults.

Despite their reputation as a wasteland, many parts of the highlands are buzzing with life during the summer and make a great place for water birds to breed and have their young before returning to warmer regions.

Whooper swan swimming on Reykjavík city pond
Ian Funk