Swans are iconic birds, seen and loved across many waterways across the world and are among the largest flying birds that exist today. Their closest relatives are other large waterbirds, geese and ducks. There are six species existing today, including:
- The Mute Swan (Cygnus olor): A Eurasian species that is common throughout Europe and into China and Russia. They are one of the oldest swan species as their fossil record goes back thousands of years.
- The Black Swan (Cygnus atratus): not just the name of a famous movie, these striking birds are native to Australia, but have been introduced to New Zealand, Britain, The US, Japan and China.
- The Black Necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus): Like a mix of the two previous species, this swan has a black neck and bright white plumage on the rest of the body and is native to South America.
- The Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus): This species breeds in colder climes like the Iceland and the Subarctic region, migrating to more temperate areas like Europe and Asia in the winter.
- The Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator): similar to the Whooper Swan but quite a bit larger, this North American species was pushed to the brink of extinction, but thanks to conservation efforts has recovered its population.
- The Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus): This species breeds on the Arctic Tundra (hence the name) and migrates to Eurasia and North America for more temperate winters.
Swans feature in many cultures’ stories and fables. In Europe there is the fable of the ugly duckling and the birds feature of the heraldry of many European nobles. In Ancient Greek mythology, the King of the Gods Zeus visited the Queen of Sparta in the guise of a swan, and Apollo, God of the Sun, had the swans as one of his sacred birds. One of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake, features the tale of two swans Odette and Odile, representing good and evil. Outside of Europe, swans are revered in Hindu culture and considered saintly.
They are still culturally relevant in modern day Britain; the British Monarch owns all of the swans in England, in a legislation that dates back to the 12th century. In medieval Britain, swans were considered a delicacy and were often served in prize place at a banquet, hence why the monarch guarded these birds so closely. However, swan fillet is not a British dish you’ll see on a menu anymore, and the birds are a protected species. There is even a Queen’s Swan Marker who monitors the health of swan populations near crown estates and works with animal charities to rescue and rehabilitate any injured swans.
A relationship for life
Swans are famous for forming monogamous pairs that mate for life, a relatively unusual breeding strategy in the animal kingdom. It is common for swans to bond even before they have reached sexual maturity, with some species finding a mate as early as 20 months, when they only begin breeding between 4 and 7 years of age. The mute swan even has a reputation for dying of a broken heart when the other half of the pair dies. Although most swans will remain with the same mate for their whole life, there are examples of some swans finding a new mate when their previous partner has passed away. There are some rare instances of swan ‘divorce’, when breeding pairs will turn up the next season with different mates in tow. No one knows exactly why this occurs, but it may be something to do with recurrent unsuccessful breeding periods.
Swans are gregarious and thrive in large social groups, and migratory species in particular, like the Tundra Swan, will settle in large flocks in wetlands once their journey is complete. Swans aren’t just loyal partners; both sexes will also help with the construction of nests and will take turns incubating the eggs, which is only example of this behaviour in the family of birds containing ducks and geese, aside from Whistling Ducks.
The Trumpeter Swan: saved from extinction
These huge birds are the largest native waterfowl to the United States, and among one of the largest water birds in the world. Just heaving this massive bulk into the air requires a runway of up to 100 yards, which is not surprising considering these birds weigh up to 25 pounds. Today, you can spot these majestic birds across most of the American Midwest and Great Lakes, even reaching up into the Rocky Mountains.
But this common sight was not always the case. Trumpeter Swans were once extensively hunted for their feathers to adorn the most fashionable hats, for their skins for use in cosmetic powder puffs and for their huge flight feathers, which made the best writing quills. This trade started in the 1600’s but by the early 20th century, hunting had decimated the population down to an estimated 70 birds hunkering down in Yellowstone National Park. Aside from hunting, they were also frequently poisoned by lead shot, which was ingested by vulnerable young birds in search of a meal. Muskrat and beavers were also popular on the hunters list, and this was also detrimental to the swans, as they relied on their dams and dens for nesting.
Long believed to have been confined to the natural history books, an aerial survey of Alaska’s Copper River in the 1950s revealed a population several thousand strong still existing in this isolated wilderness. They had avoided the worst of the hunting, shielded by the extreme remote habitat and able to survive the vicious cold of Alaskan winters thanks to hot springs and geysers keeping the worst of the ice away. Excitedly, conservationists began to plan their reintroduction to the rest of the States.
Initially, the reintroduction was a rather modest affair, as much of the habitat these birds need had been decimated, and they do not migrate, so would not fly long distances to find somewhere better. However, recent surveys from the US Fish and Wildlife Service has revealed that all three of the major reintroduced populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have shown continued growth over the last 30 years.
The Trumpeter Swan Society is North America’s leader in Trumpeter Swan conservation, and since the 1960’s has provided scientific support to restoration programmes across the states and monitors the birds year on year. You can check out their amazing work at Trumpeter Swan Society|Plymouth, MN.
Shea, R.E. Nelson, H.K. Gillette, L.N. King, J.G. and Weaver, D.K. (2002) ‘Restoration of Trumpeter Swans in North America: a century of progress and challenges.’ Waterbirds: the International Journal of Waterbird Biology.
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08