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Fish & Game Magazine - Hunting Articles

Zane Mirfin's first published article was in Rod and Rifle Magazine in 1981. Since that time he has contributed material to numerous publications both within New Zealand and Internationally. 
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Chamois Success: Zane Mirfin with a Nelson Lakes Chamois Buck, June 2009  Pheasant Country: Nelson has a variety of Bird Shooting opportunities for Waterfowl, and Upland species.

Black Swan Hunting in New Zealand

© Zane Mirfin, Waterfowling's Ugly Duckling, Fish & Game Magazine, Issue 60, May 2008

Black swans have long been considered the ‘ugly duckling’ of New Zealand waterfowl hunting. Arguably our most impressive gamebird species in both size and appearance, Zane Mirfin checks out the black swan story so far.

Highlighted against the twilight glow, the flight of black swans flew serenely toward us, following the sinuous curves of the fertile spring creek that was their evening feeding destination. Calling softly to each other with a distinctive whistle, they made an almost magical sight with their large dark bodies and necks silhouetted against the golden winter sky. Now within shotgun range, we could hear the distinctive wing beat and see red beaks and flashing white wings as adrenaline levels surged within us. A flurry of shots followed and three birds fell. It had been an unforgettable evening hunt.

Black swans have always been a favourite of mine since university days when I regularly hunted North Canterbury’s Lake Ellesmere. The lake was like a magnet and its wild expanses were greatly enhanced by the impressive rafts of swans within ready sight. We had some great hunts shooting a range of waterfowl species, but a few swans harvested among ducks and geese always made for a more exciting day.

Over the years, I’ve heard some pretty negative comments about black swans, but for many waterfowling enthusiasts, they have many essential characteristics, other than speed, eating qualities and cunning, that make them a wonderful New Zealand gamebird.

Swans even have historical interest beyond mere hunting, in both folklore and western European mythology. Most people have heard of ‘the ugly duckling’ fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Anderson, first published in 1843. This tale tells of a cygnet ostracised by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness. To his delight -- and to the surprise of others -- the cygnet matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all. Then there is the famous ballet, Swan Lake, first performed by the Russian Bolshoi Ballet Company in 1877, using original music by composer Tchaikovsky that most people would recognise.

Even further back is the term ‘swan song’, used to denote a final, or theatrical, or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. This derives from the ancient belief that the swan is completely mute during its lifetime, except for singing a single, heartbreakingly beautiful song just before it dies. Although false, this legend persisted in Aesop’s fable in The Swan Mistake For A Goose, the writings of Ovid, Chaucer, and Tennyson, among others.

Tennyson’s poem, The Dying Swan, describes the beauty of the swan’s song:

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul

Of that waste place with joy

Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear

The warble was low, and full and clear…

But anon her awful jubilant voice,

With a music strange and manifold,

Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

As when a mighty people rejoice

With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold…


It is worth noting that most swan legends developed through the mute swan (Cygnus olor), which is completely white. New Zealand has some limited populations of wild mute swans, principally on Lake Ellesmere, but these birds are totally protected and not available to hunters. Overseas, the term ‘black swan’ became a metaphor for something that could not exist because of the ancient western conception that all swans are white (dating back to Roman satirist Juvenal in 82 AD). The 17th century discovery of black swans in Australia (first recorded by Dutch sailors in 1636) metamorphosed the term to connote that the perceived impossibility actually came to pass. The metaphor ‘black swan’ has been used in countless books, plays, brands, labels, even a folk song where the key line is “the black swans homeward come, through sunset skies that gleam on me”. The term is even used in modern day investment trading where a ‘black swan’ is an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict. Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers has even been termed a ‘black swan’ event by the media.

There are seven species of swan in the world, all pure white except for the Australian black swan and the South American black-necked swan. The black swan is the state bird of Western Australia.

Aboriginal mythology of Australia explains the origins of the black swan through the moral tale of an aboriginal fisherman, who caught a baby bunyip and tried to take it back to camp to boast of his fishing prowess despite the protestations of his companions. The mother bunyip rose from the water and turned the men into black swans. As punishment for the man’s vanity, they never regained human form and swans still talk at night to remind their human relatives of the perils of pride and arrogance.

Black swans were transported back to Europe in the 18th century, but were considered the “witch’s familiar” (the sinister relationship between the devil and black-coloured animals) and were often killed by superstitious locals, perhaps explaining why black swans have never established a presence as feral birds in Europe or North America.

The New Zealand black swan story began in the 1864 when they were first introduced from Australia. Within two decades, black swan numbers exploded, lending credence to the observations of the early naturalist, Thomas Kirk, that birds had also self-introduced from Australia (NZ Nature Heritage, 1975). By 1900, numbers were so high around Lake Ellesmere that local farmers were reporting pasture damage through grazing and fouling. Before the arrival of the ‘modern’ black swans on New Zealand shores, there had been an extinct native swan (Cygnus sumnerensis), but this is now thought to probably be the same species -- or at least very close to the Australian black swan. So historically, it is possible that these birds traded between both countries and black swans should probably be thought of as native indigenous birds rather than as just an introduced gamebird.

The black swan (Cygnus atratus) weighs up to 9kg, but usually around 5-6kg and up to and exceeding 1.4 metres in length. The neck is the most impressive feature, held upright while on the water or land, but held horizontally while in flight. The bill of the adult swan is crimson red with a white tip and white bar at the tip of the bill. White wing tips are very conspicuous in flight, while the juvenile bird is a grayish brown with a dull-coloured bill. Adult black swans have a mostly charcoal body, with younger birds much greyer with black wing tips. Adult females are often significantly smaller, but all birds have grayish-black legs and feet. Swans trumpet, bugle, hiss, and whistle, and are generally quite vocal, especially at night. Swans are a long-lived species, with the oldest recorded bird living at least 29 years.

Nowadays, black swans occupy all suitable habitat throughout the North and South Islands, and on Stewart and Chatham Islands, and are especially concentrated on Lake Ellesmere, Lake Whangape (Waikato), and Lake Waihola (Otago), but with significant populations also at Farewell Spit, Lake Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, and the inland Rotorua lakes. Swans are largely vegetarians, feeding almost exclusively on aquatic plants, such as water milfoil (Myriophyllum), pond weed (Potamogeton), Egeria, Zostera, and importantly, Ruppia.

By all accounts, the 1968 Wahine storm devastated the Ellesmere swan population, as it broke the wings of thousands of swans and wiped out the Ruppia weed beds there. As a result, the population there has never really recovered. Fish & Game records also show that farm runoff into Ellesmere from the 1970s onwards killed much of the food sources on which swans relied.

Black swans are routinely found in swamps, braided rivers, spring creeks, and grazing agricultural pasture in search of food, although they are clumsy walkers on dry land. Swans prefer larger salt, brackish, or freshwater waterways and permanent wetlands. Being large birds, they require about 40 metres of clear water to take off. Black swans are highly mobile and migratory, often flying by night and resting by day.

Breeding has been recorded year round in New Zealand, although September to January is a common time for swan nesting colonies. Up to 5000 nests in one colony have been observed on Lake Ellesmere. Five to six large pale green eggs are common, with both male and female sharing incubation. When hatched, both parents and cygnets soon make their way to water and in four to six months the cygnets are fully feathered and capable of flight. Apparently, cygnets are often raised in large crèches guarded by a few adults. Nesting habits depend on the locality and food supply, but only about one in five of our black swans nest in any one year and no more than a third of the birds present at a breeding area attempt to nest.

Swans raise only one brood per year and are thought to mate for life, although some bright scientist has worked out they have about a 6% divorce rate! Black swans, like other waterfowl, moult after breeding and are unable to fly for about a month. During these times, they will settle on large, open waters for safety. In times past, swan eggs were collected for food and also as commercial additives to milk products and stock foods.

For swans, the pair is the central social unit and the birds reinforce this with frequent preening and sex. Interestingly, these couples are not always heterosexual, with black swans being thought to have a high rate of homosexual activity. Females (pens) often prefer to mate with a pair of large homosexual males (cobs), so as to have access to a larger territory, more food sources, and enhanced protection from intruders and vermin. Sadly for the pen, she is usually chased off when the cygnets hatch and the cobs raise the young birds themselves, increasing the chances of survival up to 10 times that of young swans raised by a heterosexual couple. The ability to form a male homosexual pair is apparently a normal part of black swan social behaviour and is just one example of a flexible life strategy in the species.

Population levels fluctuate each year, but we have a national population of about 60,000 birds of which as many as 5000 may be harvested annually by hunters. Marine and estuarine habitats are very important sites in the swan lifecycle and, it is thought, Lake Ellesmere swans disperse to coastal Otago and Southland, Lake Wairarapa birds cross Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds and Farewell Spit, while Waikato swans head for the harbours of Northland.

Black swans are generally not regarded as a top gamebird by New Zealand waterfowl hunters, but visiting North American hunters often view them as a must-have addition to their trophy rooms

The availability of this species varies throughout the country, and most shooters have access to them on big waterways within a moderate drive from home. I’ve shot swans on the braided river camps and freshwater lakes of Westland, the tidal Vernon/Wairau Lagoons of Marlborough, and Lake Ellesmere, shallow farm wetlands in the Wairarapa, and the tidal mud of West Haven Inlet in Golden Bay.

Most hunters do not target swans as an individual species. Most will be shot as an incidental species that adds some variety and interest to a hunting day targeting ducks and geese. If you are on a swan fly-way, you will often see many birds, trading between feeding and resting areas, but more often than not, you will only have the chance to shoot one or two birds.

Swans will decoy to full body decoys and silhouettes, although my swan decoys are most often used as confidence decoys for ducks and geese. Swans are big targets, but not particularly tough to knock down. Remember to not shoot at the body. Lead the head of a swan and you won’t go too far wrong. Swans are impressive birds once hit, with long snaky necks collapsing and huge birds plummeting from the sky, making a large splash when they hit the water. Smaller gundogs can have trouble retrieving them, especially in tough, windy conditions with big waves.

It is illegal to discard swan bodies on public hunting grounds. Breast meat, legs, and thighs make acceptable eating in stir-fries, salamis, and sausages. We used to eat a lot of swan in my student days – calling it ‘Lake Ellesmere Venison’ – and most of the time no one knew the difference.

There is also no law that says you have to kill everything that flies past just because you can. Swans can be great birds to just watch gracefully fly past. Graeme Hughes, in his article Big River Mallards at Dawn in Special Issue 26, noted that he often chooses not to shoot swans that fly past his decoys. Sometimes however, it may be a good thing for waterfowl shooters to routinely harvest at least a few swans to avoid the big moulting culls of the past. Here in Nelson/Marlborough, black swans are routinely culled under permit by rifle near Pakawau, Golden Bay because swan excrement is allegedly increasing the faecal bacteria count of commercially harvested cockles on expansive sandflats. Maybe licenceholders need to shoot more swans, or Fish & Game needs to have more organised hunts?

Apart from big water hunting over decoys, swans can be taken jump-shooting, evening hunting along spring creeks, pasture hunting, rafting, and waiting on early morning braided river-camps. Most times you will be hunting other more popular waterfowl and a black swan opportunity will arise.

The best swan targets are high, with a tailwind adding a real sporting dimension. Some of the most exciting swans to shoot are at dusk as they fly over pasture or spring creeks.

Rafting rivers has been a successful method of harvesting swans, although swans are strong swimmers and often out-swim the raft. If there is a tail wind, sometimes the swan will baulk at the tail of a pool and turn back into the wind for an upstream takeoff, often placing them right over the shooter.

Swans have very good eyesight, so don’t reach for your gun or make any movement until they are well within range. Calls are now available for hunting over decoys and can work well.

Waterfowl hunting in New Zealand would be a much lesser experience without the humble black swan. To many, it’s a waterfowling icon that epitomises all that is wild and free about our larger wetlands.