Long story short: they aren’t mute, cygnets are adorable and swans are dinosaurs.
Mute swans or Cygnus olor are interesting birds. Easy to identify due to their impressive size and pure white colour, they are resident in Ireland all year round (1). Their sheer size and idiosyncrasies of behaviour are well known but not often explained. In this article I will explore in more depth some of the more peculiar parts of their life history.
First things first we need to register that we are working with dinosaurs (2). This is true for all birds but particularly so for swans. They get this look in their eye by times and it’s as if they remember having teeth.
Swans mostly stick to fresh water habitats but are also found in coastal waters. There are uncertainties as to whether they are a native species – or as native as anything can ever be considering we are on an island. Some swan bones do exist in the fossil record, but these may well belong to migratory swans. Hollow bird bones are often too delicate to preserve well in the fossil record and it is difficult to tell similar species apart from bones alone.
Mute swans may have been introduced to Ireland for hunting in Medieval times or have gradually spread across Europe to Ireland after the last ice age (3). Many European mute swans are known to winter in Ireland (1) so a migration of the species in this manner wouldn’t be so unusual.
These swans are anything but mute, as you probably know if you’ve been anywhere near them. Mute swans can hiss, honk, grunt, squawk and chirp when they are young (1). They are also very loud when beating their wings in flight possibly as a way of remaining in communication (4). However there is some truth to the name – they are quieter overall than other swan species (1).
Their common name may also relate to the belief that they do not have a unique cry and is likely tied in to the ancient notion of the ‘swan song’, a last beautiful musical dirge sung by the otherwise silent swan. This has not been observed in the mute swan, but the whooper swan is known to emit a long note as the lungs collapse after its death. This may be the basis for the legend (5).
Loves labours won
Swans are well known for their monogamous, dedicated lifestyles. As a good rule of thumb those species with low levels of sexual dimorphism – species where males and females look similar – usually rear their young together. But like all couples they sometimes have disagreements, affairs, separations and divorces. While rare some mute swan pairs will separate, usually after multiple poor breeding seasons (6).
Mute swans also display homosexual behaviours. Male pairs, female pairs, fostering lost cygnets and adoption of abandoned nests can all occur (7). In rarer situations swans may also pair off with other water birds such as large geese. This is however very unusual (8).
The invasion of boats
In recent years there have been a variety of stories in Ireland and the UK involving swans and their often hostile response to rowboats and kayaks. These events are most common in their breeding season when they are defending their nesting site. The behaviour is fairly understandable when you break it down from the swans point of view.
As a swan, you are an oval thing that glides across the water. Part of the water and the bank are your territory and you must defend this with hissing, puffing your feathers up, and slapping your wings and feet on the water. Ducks must be chased away and any invading swans given a good drubbing.
But low and behold! Another oval thing has come into your space, slapping the water in a threatening fashion. It may be a boat with a human in it who intends to keep moving, and those may be paddles slapping the water, but as far as a swan is concerned its dangerous and they must defend their nest and children.
This is why swans will sometimes give kayaks a chasing off (9).
The joy of spring
Keep your eyes open for the next few weeks for signs of nest building – don’t disturb. The female will generally incubate while the male stands guard. Once the cygnets hatch they can swim as soon as they are dry, usually within an hour. Cygnets will be reliant on their parents for food and protection for much of the year, before becoming independent – or been driven away – in the autumn.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into swanning around!
- Birdwatch Ireland Swan Bio
- Wilford, John Noble (28 March 2016). “‘Dinosaurs Among Us’ Retraces an Evolutionary Path” The New York Times
- Warner, Dick (14 January 2013). “Is the Mute Swan a native bird?” The Irish Examiner
- Cramp, S., ed. (1977).The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-857358-8
- Brazil, Mark (2003).The Whooper Swan. T & A D Poyser. ISBN 978-0-7136-6570-3. 64–65. (Online version)
- The Truth About Swans, BBC Earth.
- The Gay Marriages of Swans
- Gobirding website, Swoose
- How Dangerous are Swans? BBC Magazine.