Probably the swan. When one thinks of a swan, it conjures the image of the large, white bird, resting in water with its graceful neck arched in a curve like the letter S with its beak toward the water ever so slightly. This is the swan of paintings and art. This is the mute swan.

The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is one of the seven (or eight) species of swan, the largest of the waterfowl. Along with other swans, ducks, and geese, it belongs to the Order Anseriformes (anser being Latin for "goose"). It is also of the Family Anatidae (anas being Latin for "duck")—subfamily Anserinae. Originally native to the British Isles—where it is the largest bird—and mainland Europe, the mute swan has been introduced to North America and has thrived—sometimes to the detriment of other flora and fauna. They can also be found in North Central Asia (wintering as far as Northwest India and Korea).

Though not very migratory, some will travel as far south as Northern Africa during winter for food. They have also been known to congregate in coastal waters during the winter when ponds and rives freeze up.

Since the name begs the question, it is best to start there. Is the mute swan mute? Of course not. On the other hand, for the most part, it lives up to its name. They are able to make hissing noises (also common in geese), snorts, whistles, and even barking-like sounds. Because of the bird's straight trachea, the sounds do not carry far, helping to suggest the name.

Length (total): 1.3 to 2.5 m (4.26 to 8.2 feet)
Wingspan: 2.13 to 2.43 m (7 to 8 feet)
Bill length: 9.8 to 10.3 cm (3.85 to 4 inches)
Weight: 9 to 11 kg (19.8 to 24.25 lb.), though as much as 15 kg (33 lb.)
There is some sexual dimorphism with the males slightly larger than the females.

After the curved neck and the white plumage, the most striking feature is the beak with its orange color and black at the tip and base—where there is the characteristic knob on the upper bill. The legs and feet are black.

Mute swans enjoy a diet of almost all aquatic vegetation. Like other swans, they have up to several more vertebrae in their necks than related waterfowl, enabling them to reach down underwater for food (swans don't dive). This also allows them to coexist with other birds by making competition for food less of an issue (not always the case, see below). They also are known to eat small water invertebrates and insects, fish, and frogs—though to a much lesser extent.

Though it is the commonly held belief that swans mate for life, this is not the case with the mute swan (some species do, though). It might play to the Romantic ideal and make for beautiful and poignant poetry and literature to imagine the swan with its lifelong partner, devastated when that mate dies—even "pining to death." But that isn't the case. Not that a pair couldn't mate for life (so-called "established pairs" are more successful at reproduction than others), but observation has shown that one might have as many as four partners over time and even "divorce" one for another.

Mute swans reach sexual maturity by age three and can continue to mate pretty much for life. In the wild, most don't live longer than five or six years (the oldest banded one was nineteen), but they can live as long as twenty-five to thirty (captivity increasing the life span). Reproduction rates drop after twenty years, however.

Between March and May is the breeding season—courtship begins sooner and the couple chooses and then defends a territory (four to ten acres) for themselves. The large nest (around 1.2 by 1.2 m/4 feet by 4 feet) is usually built by the parents, though sometimes established nests or mounds (such as a muskrat home) are used. It is built near the water but kept above the water level and lined with feathers and down. The pale grey or blue-green eggs are laid in a depression at the center of the nest at about two day intervals. The parents share incubation duties, though the female does the majority.

The territoriality and aggressiveness of the bird translates into everything from a nuisance to danger for any intruder. Swans have been observed to "fight to the death" over it. They will also issue (non-mute) warning calls to those approaching the territorial claim, up to and including humans (which can be hazardous for small children). A mute swan will challenge and attack anything coming near the nest. While they do not bite, as is commonly thought, they can strike with their wings (recall the size of the bird and its wingspan before dismissing this).

Three to seven eggs are in a typical clutch, though as many as thirteen or fourteen have been observed. Incubation lasts about thirty-five days (from the last egg laid). The young (cygnets) are born with grey downy feathers which gradually turn brown and then white by twelve months. At three to four months, they can fly, though they will remain with the parents, protected—even riding on the parent's backs while small—until the following mating season when they are driven away to join up with non-breeding flocks of juveniles. During the next two years, they begin to find mates and bond.

Mute swans have become a nuisance and a problem in parts of the US where they have thrived. They are outcompeting similarly sized birds. The trumpeter swan (nearly extinct in the early twentieth century but now making a successful comeback) in particular as well as the Canada Goose. The common loon and other birds have also been affected or driven off.

The aggressive territoriality often drives off other waterfowl who avoid the area as a nesting ground. They also eat a large quantity of aquatic vegetation year round, making competition for food sources more significant (in the US where they are not a native species). They can eat up to 3.6 kg (8 lb.) a day which can affect fish and crab populations as well as limiting winter food for migrating birds. The heavy birds with their large feet (in some cases as big as a human hand) have also been known to step on other birds' nests, destroying their eggs.

In order to deal with the problem, fish and wildlife officials have tried shaking the eggs ("addling") or coating them in oil so that the parents waste time on eggs that will not hatch. The purpose is not to eliminate the population but to control it and in most states, the birds are protected from hunting.

Other facts:

  • At one time, in Britain, they were raised as food. "Nicks" in the webbing of their feet were used as means of identifying ownership ("unowned" birds would be considered property of the Crown or a "Royal Bird"). Domestication may have saved the species from extinction in Britain.
  • In the past, the feathers were used for writing quills, the webbing for purses, and the bones for whistles.
  • Males are called "cobs" and females are called "pens."
  • A swan can have up to 25,000 feathers.
  • Many cygnets die within the first year due to "flying accidents."
  • They can fly at speeds of 80.5 to 88.5 km/h (50 to 55 mph).


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