Mute swans are possibly the best-loved birds on our waterways. You can’t help but admire their gracefulness as they float serenely through the water using their large webbed feet that ironically make them ungainly on dry land.
They feed on aquatic vegetation, snails, small fish and worms, frequently upending to reach below the surface of the water. But they also dabble and graze on land. Their iconic beautiful snow-white plumage that contrasts with an orange and black bill, and black knob at the base of the bill, and their long neck held in a graceful s-shape make the bird instantly recognisable.
Pair for life
Pairing for life, the female, or pen, builds her nest from twigs and vegetation supplied by her partner, the cob. The pen lays five to 12 eggs which she incubates for five to six weeks with the male taking over when the she leaves the nest to eat. Generally, all the eggs hatch within a 24-hour period and the grey, fluffy cygnets have black beaks and stay on the nest for a further 24-hours before taking to the water. They can sometimes be seen riding on their parents’ backs. They begin to turn dingy brown on top and white underneath. The ‘ugly ducklings’ stay with their proud parents for at lest five months at which time they learn to fly. In some cases they will stay with their parents to fly to a wintering area. They become predominantly white at a year old, although the bill remains grey/pink. If they are too reluctant to leave mum and dad, their parents may turn on them and encourage them to go. Swans can pair bond from the age of two, but don’t generally breed until they are three years old.
The royal connection
Did you know that Queen Elizabeth II owns all the unmarked mute swans in open water in England? If you think this sounds far-fetched, pop over to the royal.uk website for absolute confirmation.
The Crown holds the rights to claim ownership of all unmarked mute swans swimming in open waters across the countryside. These rights have existed since the 12th Century when swans were considered an important food source for feasts and banquets. Although no longer caught for food, the Queen exercises her rights to claim ownership of mute swans once a year.
This is carried out in a Swan Upping ceremony, mainly on certain stretches of the River Thames. The ownership of the swans is shared with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies, which were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the 15th century.
In the third week of July every year, the Queen’s Swan Marker and Swan Uppers of the Vintners and the Dyers travel upstream to Abingdon on a five-day journey. They are easily identifiable by their scarlet uniforms and traditional Thames rowing skiffs.
During the Swan Upping, the Swan Marker keeps a sharp eye out for cygnets. When the cry “All up!” is made, the baby swans are surrounded by the rowing boats and lifted from the water. They are counted, weighed, measured, and assessed for injury or signs of disease. If they belong to the Vintners’ or the Dyers’ livery companies (this is determined by cygnets’ parentage) they are ringed. The Queen’s birds are not ringed. A report detailing the number of swans, broods and cygnets is produced. The Swan Marker’s duty is to ensure the swan population is maintained and give talks to local schools and charities on the subject of swan welfare and the annual swan upping census.
The royal website explains: ‘Swan Upping has changed from a mostly ceremonial event to an important element of wildlife conservation.’
Facts and myths
With a huge wingspan of around 238 centimetres and weighing in at around 11 kilograms mute swans can pose a threat if cornered or protecting their young or their territory. They have an intimidating hiss and will flap their wings noisily. Territorial disputes can get nasty with swans sometimes fighting to the death. However the story that they can break a man’s arm is said to be a myth and no doubt the Queen’s Swan Marker could give accurate notes on this subject.
Mute swans partner for life and it is often said that if one dies, the other will pass away of a broken heart. Whilst this may be true in some instances, it is also known that after a period of grieving, swans will look for another partner.
The average lifespan of a mute swan is 12 years, although in a protected environment they can live for over 30 years.
When in flight, swans wings make an unmistakable rhythmic humming sound.
You may think mute swans are common throughout the country because they are seen all year round in Dorset, but their conservation status is amber and there are areas in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the North where they are not resident.
There are 6,400 UK breeding pairs of mute swans and 74,000 wintering pairs (rspb.org.uk).
A protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, swans, their nests and eggs are protected and it is illegal to harm, kill or disturb them in any way.
If eggs are abandoned it is against the law to take them and incubate them artificially. If you come across an injured bird call the RSPCA or another recognised animal rescue. There is a Swan Rescue Sanctuary at Wimborne. Telephone 01202 828166.
Swans don’t have many predators and their main threats come from pollution, fishing tackle, cruel acts of vandalism and overhead power lines.
There are two further types of swan that visit the British Isles. These are Bewick’s and whooper swans. They over winter in parts of the UK and are easily differentiated from mute swans by their yellow bills. Bewick’s are frequently seen in the winter months in fields around the Ringwood area. Whoopers tend to over winter in Scotland but have been rare visitors to the Fleet at Abbotsbury Swannery.
Have you got a breeding pair of mute swans near you? If so, how many cygnets did they have this year? Leave a comment because Dorset View would love to know.
Categories of conservation importance briefly explained:
Red – highest conservation priority and needing urgent action
Amber – next most critical group
Green – least critical group
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