The Secret Lives of the Palace of Fine Arts Swans

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

In 2013, when this photo was taken, there were more than two swans living in the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon. (David Yu/Flickr)

When it comes to local landmarks, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is for the romantics among us. It’s an art installation leftover from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition — one of the world’s fairs held in San Francisco. The architect Bernard Maybeck designed the Palace of Fine Arts to look like a decaying ruin in Ancient Rome, including a large rotunda with colonnades on each side. Maybeck also originally intended for swans to grace the serene lagoon out front.

This historic and beautiful architectural gem tucked into a corner of the Marina district is a lovely green space for a walk. Bay Curious listener Mishi Nova thinks it’s one of the most beautiful places in the Bay Area. She visits frequently, often channeling on its calm to meditate or draw.

Lately Mishi has noticed there are a lot of birds that hang out in the Palace lagoon. She’s particularly taken with two swans.

“They’re just really elegant and beautiful from a distance and up close they’re kind of quirky and they have a little comedy to them,” Mishi said.

Sponsored

Hanging out with the swans got Mishi wondering: "Are they protected at night to prevent coyotes from eating them?"

Swan at the Palace of Fine Arts
One of the swans at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (Jason Thompson/Flickr)

Mishi’s also curious about some of the other birds that hang out here, and why the place is such a bird haven.

Meet the Swan Lady

If you want to know about the swans, there’s only one person to ask: The Swan Lady — Gayle Haggerty.

“I can tell who they are across the water. And people say to me, well, how can you tell? And I said, well, because I've been taking care of them for so long!”

Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts as it looked during the Pacific-Panama International Exhibition in 1915. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library)

For 25 years, Gayle has visited the swans daily and managed their diet, which is mostly lettuce and a swan feed, but sometimes a little canned corn and dandelion greens too.

“For dessert they get Cheez-Its, which they love. They just go berserk for those,” Gayle said.

These swans, affectionately known as Blanche and Blue Boy, are mute swans. They’re called mute swans because they are naturally not very vocal.

“Blanche is very sweet and very forgiving,” Gayle said. “If I have to handle her she will forgive me right away.”

Blanche is a 24-year-old white-footed Polish mute. Blue Boy is quite a bit younger at 14, and he’s from New York. He’s a black-footed English mute. The most visible difference between the two is the color of their feet.

“Blue Boy — he's the man of the lagoon. He doesn't like geese there, he doesn't like me. He’s a very large swan. And he's always on a patrol. He's always like, 'who are you? Who let you in?'”

Difficult personalities aside, these swans are graceful, majestic.

“When I see them on the water, it makes something in my soul feel whole. And it's always been that way,” Gayle said.

Arial shot of the Palace of Fine Arts in 1915
Arial shot of the Palace of Fine Arts thought to have been taken in 1915. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Swans have lived at the Palace of Fine Arts since it first opened during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. The 1906 earthquake and fire had recently ravaged the city, and San Franciscans wanted to show the world they rebuilt better than ever.

One thing the designers of the Palace of Fine Arts didn’t think about, or design for, was where the swans could safely pass the night. According to Gayle, the swans sleep out in the open.

“They are not put in any compound or any protective area in the evening,” Gayle said.

But the swans are smart — they’ve found themselves some protection by going into a fenced-off area where the gardeners have a nursery. The swans can access it from the water.

Gayle said coyotes haven’t been a big problem for adult swans.

“The swans are so big and so fast — even on land, they're fast. I know because I've had to run from him especially. But we’ve had swans for a long time, it’s never been an issue for the adults,” Gayle said.

A ballerina poses as a black swan is released into the lagoon at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts in 1937.
A ballerina poses as a black swan is released into the lagoon at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts in 1937. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

But in the past, it has been an issue for the babie, called signets, which are usually cared for on the lawn, not in the gardener’s nursery. Gayle says a few years ago, the coyotes got to them and ate them onsite. Due to some health issues, Gayle says Blanche won't be having any more babies, so hopefully coyotes won't be an issue anymore.

What Other Birds Can You Find at the Palace of Fine Arts?

Since this lagoon is the closest freshwater habitat to the San Francisco Bay, it attracts all kinds of birds migrating the Pacific Flyway, from Alaska to Patagonia. And, like the swans, there are some permanent residents too.

At any given moment, you might spot ...

Seagulls, of course.

But also: “We've got some horned owls in there. I won't see them, normally. You might hear them,” Gayle said.

“We have one night heron named Morty. I always carry a can of tuna for him.”

Great blue herons and black-crowned herons are often hanging around too.

Then there are the ducks — both mallard and muscovy.

Gayle remembers one muscovy duck in particular: “He kind of thought he was a swan,” she says.

And really, when you can glide like a swan, in a place like the Palace of Fine Arts — plus eat the occasional Cheez-It — who wouldn’t want to be like Blanche and Blue Boy?