Janice Kiehl, an elementary school music teacher, and her husband, Ed Kiehl, who recently retired from the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra, make a melodic couple.
And one tune that Ed Kiehl hums frequently to his wife, as they look out into their back yard in northern Fauquier County, is the overture from Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake."
For six years, the Kiehls have had swans on the lake they share with several neighbors. The couple are an enthusiastic part of a loan program that places tundra, trumpeter and mute swans and their hybrids on some of the largest estates in the Washington area, as well as on ponds owned by corporations and municipalities.
The 12-year-old effort is overseen by ecologist William J.L. Sladen and the Swan Research Program at Warrenton's Airlie Center and is intended to manage the swan population as well as increase the acreage suitable for migratory waterfowl.
The program also provides participants with a status symbol whose cachet is in its rarity as well as its grace.
"We love to show our swans off," Janice Kiehl said.
"They really are spectacular birds," said Tom Olgirsson, an Upperville resident and cinematographer, as his wife, Anne Olgirsson, fed lettuce to Franz, a mute swan that has graced the couple's pond in northern Fauquier County for three years.
About 40 locations have swans on loan from the program, and the waiting list to get a pair has dozens of names on it, said Donielle Rininger, the lead biologist at Airlie, a sprawling conference center in Fauquier County where the majority of the 173-bird collection is kept.
In fact, Airlie's large population of birds--brought from a Pennsylvania estate in the mid-'80s--was the impetus for the loan program.
"We wouldn't be able to fit them all" into Airlie, Sladen said. Besides, he said, the program "raises awareness. Swans are wonderful ambassadors for wetlands."
Swans, bigger, more graceful and less plentiful than geese, have been a sought-after ornament since Victorian times. Today, they command hefty prices from private vendors, who sell them for $500 to $1,000 a pair, depending on the breed.
By contrast, Airlie has a federally sanctioned rehabilitation and management program aimed at breeding native American tundra and trumpeter swans. Airlie also provides for adoption the nonnative mute swans--the most abundant type in its collection--but in same-sex pairs.
"We make them celibate," Sladen said of the same-sex couples. Besides preventing them from breeding, this also makes the mutes less aggressive, which is one of their undesirable characteristics, he said.
Rininger, whose nicked and scratched shins are testimony to the time she spends in the field observing the birds, said most of the adopters get mute swans first and then "graduate" to the rarer tundra or trumpeter swans, or their hybrids. "But a lot of them get so attached to the birds that they want to keep the mutes," she said.
One example is the Olgirssons, who make frequent trips to their pond, which backs up to a guest house. They recently lost Franz's partner, Hans, to what was believed to be a fox attack. They got their first swan without trying: A stray from a neighboring estate took up at their pond.
"I come out here a lot. . . . It's really nice for your frame of mind, especially when the planet gets a little crazy," Anne Olgirsson said recently, adding that she is "honored" to have the birds.
But they are not pets, Rininger said. "You can't pet them."
Swans do like attention, however, and Airlie birds have gotten plenty. Some of them participated in an experiment two years ago that taught some trumpeter swans born in captivity to migrate by having them follow an ultra-light airplane.
Not just anybody can adopt an Airlie swan. First, there are the questions, including: "How big is your pond?"
Those with ponds big enough then must agree to make various improvements, including providing a "loafing" area where swans can rest and nest surrounded by water, a steady source of corn as a diet supplement, and an electric bubbler to prevent icing over in the winter. They also are encouraged to make a "contribution" to the Airlie program based on the market value of their swan pair.
Tom Olgirsson "went all out," in Rininger's words, building a stylish copper-domed structure for his swans.
"Some of these places are pretty amazing," said Rininger of the country properties where Airlie swans reside. The list of adopters includes developers John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. and Robert H. Smith. But not everyone who gets the swans is in that economic bracket.
Ed and Janice Kiehl own a frame house near Marshall surrounded by seven acres of property that backs up to Lake Athlone, a lake they share with half a dozen neighbors.
"You just get so attached to these birds," she said, reflecting on the recent death of Donald Trumpling, which has left its partner, Gelda, lonely.
"She's grieving, terribly upset," Kiehl said of Gelda. "It's terrible. You feel so bad for her."
Sladen, speaking from the porch of Clifton Farm at Airlie, where his calls of "Hey swans!" are answered by a pair of trumpeters, said the loan program was just one piece of a larger ecological puzzle.
"We encourage them to do things that enhance the wetland," Sladen said. "Once you have good habitats for swans, everything else comes in."
CAPTION: One of the swans at the Airlie Center reservoir, home to most of the Swan Research Program's 173 birds. The rest are placed at other ponds.
CAPTION: Donielle Rininger, head biologist for the Swan Research Program, takes notes on the swans at the Airlie Center reservoir.
CAPTION: Janice Kiehl puts corn in a feeder on the lake behind her home in Fauquier County. One of the two swans placed there recently died. "You just get so attached to these birds," Kiehl said.