Meet the Model – Simon the Mute Swan
words by Peter Hanscomb
The mute swan , Cygnus olor , is the UK’s most widespread species of swan, this iconic bird is a member of the waterfowl family Anatidae and is native to much of Europe. It has benn introduced to North America , Southern Africa and parts of Australasia. The swan gets it’s name ‘mute’ because it tends to be less vocal than other swan species. With it’s white plumage and orange beak the mute swan if a familiar sight on most British rivers and lakes. It has a distinctive black bulge on top of the beak which is larger in the male birds. An adult mute swan is a large bird , typically with a wingspan of around 200 – 250 cm with a male bird or Cob coming in at around 12 kg. The male is normally larger in both size and weight than the female often called pens. The young birds are called cygnets. Cygnets have dull grey feathers and a grey / black beak.
Mute swans nest on large mounds that they build with waterside vegetation in shallow water on islands in the middle or at the very edge of a lake.The male Mute Swan starts the nest by building a platform of crisscrossed vegetation, often on the site of a nest from a previous year. He then places vegetation next to the platform for the female, who piles the material onto the nest base, using her body and feet to mold a nest cup. Nesting materials include twigs, reeds, cattails, cordgrasses, sedges, rushes, bulrushes, other grasses, and occasionally pebbles. The cup can contain rotting vegetation and some down. The finished nest reaches 5 feet across at the base and 1.5 – 2.1 feet high, with a nest cup 15 inches across and 3 – 10 inches deep. Construction takes about 10 days, and the pair may add to the nest during egg laying and brooding. Male and female swans share the care of the nest, and once the cygnets are fledged it is not uncommon to see whole families looking for food.
They feed on a wide range of vegetation, both submerged aquatic plants which they reach with their long necks, and by grazing on land. The food commonly includes agricultural crop plants such as oilseed rape and wheat, and feeding flocks in the winter may cause significant crop damage. Adult mute swans are usually strongly territorial with just a single pair on smaller lakes, though in a few locations where a large area of suitable feeding habitat is found they can be colonial. Non-mated juveniles up to 3–4 years old commonly form larger flocks, which can total several hundred birds.The mute swan is less vocal than the noisy whooper and Bewick’s swans; they do, however, make a variety of grunting, hoarse whistling, and snorting noises, especially in communicating with their cygnets, and usually hiss at competitors or intruders trying to enter their territory.The most familiar sound associated with mute swan is the vibrant throbbing of the wings in flight which is unique to the species, and can be heard from a range of 1 to 2 km (0.6 to 1 mi)
Mute swans can be very aggressive in defence of their nests and are highly protective of their mate and offspring. Most defensive attacks from a mute swan begin with a loud hiss and, if this is not sufficient to drive off the predator, are followed by a physical attack. Swans attack by smashing at their enemy with bony spurs in the wings, accompanied by biting with their large bill, while smaller waterbirds such as ducks are normally grabbed with the swan’s bill and dragged or thrown clear of the swan and its offspring. The wings of the swan are very powerful, large waterfowl, such as Canada geese, (more likely out of competition than in response to potential predation) may be aggressively driven off, and mute swans regularly attack people who enter their territory. The cob is responsible for defending the cygnets while on the water, and will sometimes attack small watercraft, such as canoes, that it feels are a threat to its young. The cob will additionally try and chase the predator out of his family territory, and will keep animals such as foxes and raptors at bay. The familiar pose with neck curved back and wings half raised, known as busking, is a threat display. Both feet are paddled in unison during this display, resulting in more jerky movement. The swans may also use the busking posture for wind-assisted transportation over several hundred meters, so-called windsurfing.
Like other swans, mute swans are known for their ability to grieve for a lost or dead mate or cygnet.[Swans will go through a mourning process, and in the case of the loss of their mate, may either stay where its counterpart lived, or fly off to join a flock. Should one of the pair die while there are cygnets present, the remaining parent will take up their partner’s duties in raising the clutch. Mute swans lay from four to ten eggs, however the number of eggs laid each year tends to decrease with time.. The female broods for around 36 days, with cygnets normally hatching between the months of May and July. The cygnets do not reach the ability of flight before an age of 120 to 150 days: This limits the distribution of the species in the northern edge of its range, as the cygnets must learn to fly before the waters freeze. Typically athe cygnets stay with the parents for six months.
The population in the UK has increased recently, perhaps due to better protection of this species. The problem of lead poisoning on lowland rivers has also largely been solved by a ban on the sale of lead fishing weights.
Classified in the UK as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015). New born cygnets are mainly lost to crows, herons, magpies, turtles, pike and large perch. Both cygnets and full-grown swans are also the prey of foxes and mink. In the wild, with all the hazards they have to live with (vandals, pollution, dogs, mink, overhead cables, bridges, pylons, lead poisoning, fishing-tackle injuries etc), an average lifespan would be 12 years. In a protected environment a mute swan can reach 30 years.
Average lifespan: 10 years
Ownership: The queen has the prerogative right of ownership for all the mute swans in England and Wales.
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