An untold tale of Lakeland’s iconic birds

photography by Kimberly McCole

Maintaining a subdued yet iconic presence, Lakeland’s swans have graced our city’s waterscapes for nearly a century. But the swans are more than a mere accessory to our city. They are more than majestic birds that add to our lakes’ natural beauty. And they are more than a quaint logo. These stately creatures hold much more significance than simply being the symbol of our Lakeland. They have become part of our city’s identity, and their arrival here was no small feat.

The earliest records of swans in Lakeland date back to 1923 when mature swans and their young lived along the city’s lakes. They were referred to as the “people’s pets,” maintained and looked after by local residents. Even then, the marriage of the swans and this land o’ lakes appeared a fitting arrangement. In fact, it was often the lakes and their swans that drew many a visitor to the city. Yet within a few decades, due to illness and predators (primarily the less-than-friendly alligators), one by one the swans began to disappear. By 1953, the final pair of Lakeland’s swans had quietly vanished. Though the swans weren’t technically city property, still all of Lakeland felt the loss.

At the time, former Lakeland residents Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pickhardt were living on an Air Force Base in the United Kingdom where Mr. Pickhardt was stationed. When Mrs. Pickhardt heard that the last pair of swans had passed, she was heartbroken. To the Pickhardts, and many Lakeland residents, the swans had been a big part of the city’s identity. Since they were living in the U.K., Mrs. Pickhardt sent a letter to Buckingham Palace asking Queen Elizabeth II to donate a pair of her royal swans to Lakeland. Within a short time, the Queen wrote back. She would be happy to grant Mrs. Pickhardt’s request and contribute a pair of her royal swans to the City of Lakeland — on one condition. The city would need to pay for the crating and shipping required to transport the swans overseas. The total cost would be $300.

With nothing but a moderate shipping fee and an importation license standing between Lakeland and the opportunity to gain, not just any swans, but a pair of Her Majesty’s royal swans, Mrs. Pickhardt proceeded to pursue the permit, and the City of Lakeland worked to raise the minimum shipping costs. In its first effort to raise the funds, the city hosted a drive. However, when a mere seven dollars came in, the drive was considered a failure and hopes to transport the regal pair seemed slim. Word of the Queen’s offer and Lakeland’s failed attempt to raise the required funds spread quickly. Then, The London Daily Mirror reported on Lakeland’s plight, and Florida’s ears perked up. St. Petersburg claimed they could easily raise $1,000 for the Queen’s swans, while Orlando quickly placed a bid for the pair. However, also in response to the news, the City of Lakeland received a charitable donation from Mrs. Randle Pomeroy. Mrs. Pomeroy had spent a mere three days in Lakeland the year prior and had adored the scenic lakes and peaceful wildlife of the city. When Mrs. Pomeroy heard of the loss of Lakeland’s swans and the failed attempt to gain the Queen’s swans, she sent a $300 check to the city to cover the costs and restore swans to Lakeland.

No longer the people’s

pets, they are now, in

essence, the city’s pets.

With Mrs. Pomeroy’s gracious donation, the swans could finally prepare for their trip across the ocean. But, just as the final arrangements were being made, a barge sank in London’s Thames River, home to the royal pair. The birds were left covered in oil and would have to be thoroughly washed before any travels, and their departure was delayed until the following year. By the time the birds were ready in December of 1956, Mrs. Pickhardt’s importation license had expired and another would have to be issued, creating yet another delay.

By February 7, 1957, Mrs. Pickhardt’s importation license was reissued, the birds were (mostly) clean and healthy, and that Thursday morning edition of The Ledger reported the pair was expected to arrive in Lakeland the following Saturday morning. On February 9, 1957, Riddle Airlines arrived at Drane Field Airport. Landing at exactly 8:55 a.m., all of Lakeland’s dignitaries were there to welcome the crated pair of mute white swans. As the pilot stepped out to present the birds to Lakeland’s representatives, he stated, “We had orders to keep them warm, and it almost suffocated us in the cockpit.” After the five-and-ahalf- month-long effort to bring the Queen’s swans to Lakeland, the large feathery birds with “long yellow beaks and fancy black patterns around their eyes,” as The Ledger first described them, were escorted to their home on Lake Morton and encased in wired cage.

The next morning, The Ledger’s Sunday headline reported “The City’s Royal Swans Are Settled in New Home on Lake Morton.” Though, come Sunday morning, much to readers’ surprise, this appeared inaccurate. By Sunday morning, the swans were nowhere to be found. Before the dawn broke through the foggy air, the swans had broken free from their caged pen and flew off to explore the other nearby lakes. Once word got out, the city pitched in to locate the pair. Just one day after reporting “…The Swans Are Settled in,” The Ledger stated, “Copters and Crew Combing Lakes for Swans.” While the female swan swam contently on Lake Morton, her fellow swan, as The Ledger reported, continued his venture out to “Lake Horney, Bonny, and Parker and then took off into the wild blue yonder.”

Within hours, Lakeland’s police patrol were alerted and on the hunt for the pair. Marcus “Joker” Marchant, the head of the city’s recreation department, was notified and eventually knee-deep in Lake Morton, after the swans. Firefighters paddled out on rescue boats on every lake. A helicopter was recruited for aerial sight. By the end of Monday, the female swan was carefully caught from Lake Morton, where she had remained floating along with the ducks the whole time. Mr. Swan, as The Ledger referred to him, was finally located after a four-day hunt. Both swans were returned to Lake Morton, followed by a minor procedure to ensure such a hunt would not happen again anytime soon. On Thursday, February 14, 1957, The Ledger reported that the male swan was finally caught by luring him with the caged female, and was returned to Lake Morton: “His bachelorhood over, Mr. Swan has settled down to be a married bird.” And so began Lakeland’s iconic flock of swans.

Today, some 70 swans, no longer confined to wired cages, occupy the lakes throughout the city. Lakeland’s Park and Recreation Department is staffed to care specifically after these birds on a daily basis. No longer the people’s pets, they are now, in essence, the city’s pets. Lakeland’s swans include four different breeds: mute white swans, black swans, black neck swans, and coscoroba swans (the smallest of the birds; goose-like with short necks). With daily care and yearly checkups, the city’s pets really are, as most pets, like family. At the Annual Swan Roundup, each bird is examined and its health recorded. Each swan has its own file, tracking their weight and any ailments, and identifying each family of swans. In addition, every swan is microchipped and tracked. (If only technology had been so advanced with its fathering royal pair!)

In many ways, all of Lakeland acts as chaperones for these families of swans. Steve Platt, operation support supervisor for Lakeland’s Parks and Recreation Department says, “It’s not out of the norm for someone to call in at 2 a.m. if they are concerned a swan may be in danger.” Even for those who may not have known about the swans’ royal lineage, these lovely creatures quickly capture our attention, and we tend to care for them nonetheless.

The next time you see a swan on the water or a royal family of the birds scurrying along the lake, you can thank Her Majesty for endowing us with such an irreplaceable icon for the city.