The Mute Swan represents the essence of elegance and serenity. From Tchaikovsky’s master piece ballet ‘Swan Lake’ to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale ‘The Ugly Duckling’ this graceful bird has been an artist’s muse for centuries. Watching these mighty birds gliding effortlessly over the reflecting glass of a summer pond, it is easy to understand why the Mute swan has been immortalised in art.
The Mute swan is native to Northern Europe and has been introduced to parts of the United States. I have had the pleasure of enjoying them on both sides of the Atlantic. Like most people in Britain I encountered the birds referred to simply as swans, as a child. I don’t know how old I was when I was first told “mind the swans, don’t get too close, they can break a man’s leg with their wing” but it certainly made an impression on me. I knew that it was true because every person I met, young or old, knew that this bird was a leg breaking monster. Fisherman on the banks of England’s rivers and lakes needed only receive a surly glance and reptilian hiss from an irritated swan to send them moonwalking back from the water’s edge. The second part of the rural legend was that you could not fight back when a swan attacks because Queen Elizabeth II herself owns all the swans in England, and to kill one was surely treason. Prison was a certainty and in the worst of all cases one could lose one’s head. Literally!
It doesn’t take much research, and takes even less common sense, to discover that a swan can not break a man’s leg with the beat of a wing. Males, or Cobs, are very aggressive in the breeding season, though. It is wise to avoid them, especially if you are on a paddle board or kayak. They may attack and records show that the attack may continue until the intruder has been removed or drowned, as happened in Chicago in 2012. However, it is true that in England the Queen holds the title of Seigneur of the Swans and is able to exercise her right to ownership of all swans. In practice she only does this on a stretch of the River Thames. Once a year for 900 years a group of people led by the the Queens personal Swan Marker carry out an activity known as Swan Upping. This is the annual count and health check of the Queen’s swans undertaken by red-blazered wardens. Stranger than fiction, but true!
If the Mute swan is serene on the lake it is surely magnificent in the air. The wings spanning over 2 meters (7.5 feet) make the air sing as they pump continuously to keep these massive birds airborne. No easy task when you are 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and weigh in at a mighty 13.6 kg (30 lbs).
There is a step in between the power of flight and the elegance of swimming. This is the moment of take-off and landing. There is nothing magnificent about the landing. If you watch a swan land you can see a second of panic in it’s eyes at the point of touchdown, followed by another second of pulling itself together and a look in the eye that says “nothing to see here”. Takeoff is a problem. Like a jumbo jet, this heavy bird needs to generate speed to become airborne. A Mute swan needs a runway of almost 10 meters (30 feet) of water to achieve this.
Unlike some other swan species, the Mute swan does not migrate any significant distance. They do make relatively small movements to brackish habitats or large water-bodies to overwinter, but it is common to see swans huddled like heaps of snow on frozen lakes.
Mute Swans pair for life. The male establishes a territory where they lay their eggs on large reed platform nests. This takes place close to or in the month of April. The image below was taken in New Jersey, where the pen sat sleepily on the nest while the cob kept a watchful eye on this photographer.
By May and June, if we are fortunate, we can see the beautiful balls of silver grey fluff gliding through the water with mum close by and dad maintaining a protective eye. It is difficult to imagine how these cute cygnets became the inspiration for Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling story. Definitely different among ducklings but not ugly by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps the Odd Duckling would have been a more appropriate title for the classic fairytale.
The American Problem
Whilst the Mute Swan represents the serenity and beauty of a European summer, it presents a serious problem in the North East and Mid-West United States. In the 1800’s the Mute swan was introduced to estate lakes and parks as an ornamental addition from Europe. This familiar story ends with the bird succeeding and being awarded the title of invasive species, as though the swan itself did the invading. The Mute swan’s aggressive nature is becoming a problem as it displaces threatened native wildlife from its nesting sites. The swans enormous appetite for shallow growing water plants is destroying the habitat of many aquatic species. A Mute swan can eat over 3.6 kg (8 lbs) of aquatic plants a day. In its native Europe the balanced eco-system can cope with this harvesting, but in its new territory this feeding pattern is unsustainable. The controversial practice of population control is taking place. This has included culling of adult birds or more recently the less divisive practice of egg addling, which means removal and destruction of eggs.
The Mute swan is a joy to behold on either side of the Atlantic, but I will always associate them with summer days on southern English gravel pit lakes. No longer is ownership of Mute swans a status symbol of the aristocracy. This dubious honour has been transferred to race horses and sports cars. These elegant birds are, once again, their own masters but they choose to hang around people, perhaps to share a little of their beauty and tranquility to balance our hectic lives.
Join the conversation below. Have you encountered Mute swans on either side of the Atlantic? What do you feel about the population control in the US? Maybe you were terrified that a swan would break your leg with its wings?
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