The not-so-aptly named Romeo and Juliet reside in the Public Garden in spring and summer. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)
By Donovan Slack, Globe Staff | August 12, 2005
Boston's beloved pair of swans -- feted by city leaders, residents, and tourists alike as one of the Hub's most celebrated summer attractions -- are a same-sex couple. Yes, scientific tests have shown that the pair, named Romeo and Juliet, are really Juliet and Juliet.
The city's Parks and Recreation Department conducted the tests months ago, but didn't announce the results for fear of destroying the image of a Shakespearean love story unfolding each year in the Public Garden.
''Each year when the swans go in, the kids immediately come to us and say, 'Which one's Romeo, and which one's Juliet?' " parks spokeswoman Mary Hines said yesterday in response to a Globe inquiry. ''It's just like one of those fairy tales; why spoil it?"
This year and last, the swans have laid eggs in the spring and then stood guard at the nest as visitors and nearby residents made regular pilgrimages, hoping to see the eggs hatch. Neither batch did. Turns out, that's because they were never fertilized by a male swan.
The news ignited something of a debate among swan spectators in the Public Garden yesterday, with some insisting the city now should buy a true Romeo and others saying the city should embrace the two as a couple.
''If these two swans are happy together, they shouldn't have to have a guy," said Emma Stokien, a 15-year-old from New York. ''It's good to have the swans as a symbol of the acceptance in Massachusetts."
Some advocates involved in the heated debate on same-sex marriage took the opportunity to rejuvenate their argument, with a touch of levity.
''I think this proves that there's something in the environment in Massachusetts," Brian Camenker, director of the Article 8 Alliance, a Waltham-based organization fighting same-sex marriage, joked in a telephone interview. ''Maybe it's the water that's causing all this lunacy."
The city has kept swans at the Public Garden lagoon for 16 summers. City parks officials adopted the current Romeo and Juliet a few years ago, after others died. The breeder told the city that both were female, a good fit for the Public Garden because specialists say male swans tend to be aggressive.
But when the eggs showed up last spring and the swans began acting like future parents, park rangers thought the breeder had made a mistake. They began preparing for the first-ever hatching of swan babies, or cygnets, in the Public Garden.
Park rangers constructed a fence around the nest of nine or so eggs and began making regular checks, trying to monitor the progress of the eggs. In mid-July, though, the eggs began to disappear, one by one. The swans themselves had been seen kicking some of them into the nearby lagoon. Speculation abounded that maybe the swans had been inattentive. They tended to abandon the nest for hours on end. Maybe the public attention had disrupted their parenting, some said.
Rangers managed to save one egg with hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery. After testing, they discovered the egg had never been fertilized. And when the swans returned to their winter home at the Franklin Park Zoo, parks officials decided to have their genders tested. Not an easy task, specialists said.
It's not just a matter of turning the birds upside down, said aviculturalist Frederick Beall, general curator of Zoo New England, who performed the tests. It requires inverting the bird's rear quarters and performing a detailed examination of reproductive organs. While there is a small margin of error, Beall said he has no doubt that both Romeo and Juliet are female. ''We are 100 percent certain," he said.
Swans will pair up with members of the same sex if there are no opposite-sex mates available, and one will act out the role of the opposite gender. They tend to stay with the same mates until death, typically between age 20 and 30.
''You could have two males, and they'll go through all the same behaviors, building a nest and sitting on it, but you won't have the eggs," Beall said.
Within an hour of the swans' return to the Public Garden in the spring, Romeo or Juliet -- rangers aren't sure which one -- laid a single egg, built a nest to house it, and began the pre-parental behavior. One would sit on the nest while the other shooed ducks away or went off to drink and feed. Sometimes they switched roles. After a week, though, the swans abandoned the nest, and the egg was found destroyed. Rangers removed the nest and fence, without grieving for the egg that would never hatch. (Swans typically lay only one clutch per year.)
As Romeo and Juliet, who are between 6 and 7 years old, stood on the rim of the lagoon yesterday, where swan boats glided by only yards from their nesting ground, spectators snapped pictures and commented on their beauty.
''They should have a Romeo," lamented Laura Elsheimer, a Hudson resident and owner of Sunshine Taxi Cab.
A visitor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suggested that the city should try to have one of next year's eggs fertilized so that Romeo and Juliet could become same-sex parents. ''I'm sure they'd probably be perfect parents," said L.D. Hollingsworth, smiling as he watched the swans grooming themselves.
Some same-sex marriage advocates hoped the swans' celebrity would not be diminished by the revelation of their same-sex status.
Marty Rouse, campaign director of MassEquality, said in a telephone interview: ''We should still cherish and love our swans, no matter whom they choose to swim with."