Symbol of elegance and majesty, it’s precisely the mute swan that inspired the tale of the ugly duckling. Clumsy and greyish as a child, as an adult it becomes a large bird with completely white plumage, bright red-orange beak and long arched neck that gives it an unmistakable regal bearing. Often introduced as an ornamental animal due to its beauty, it populates pools of water in parks and gardens all around the world.
Everything you need to know about the mute swan:
Once the distribution range of the mute swan was limited to northeastern Europe and parts of Asia, however, already in the Middle Ages the majestic mute swans were sought after ornamental birds. Louis XIV introduced them on the Seine and Napoleon issued directives for their protection. Especially in the 20th century, the species expanded rapidly, starting from the ponds of castles and parks, colonising both the large reeds and the urbanised banks of rivers and lakes.
- Scientific name: Cygnus olor.
- Weight: 10000 – 12000 g.
- Wingspan: 200 – 270 cm.
- Age: Up to 28 years.
- Diet: Mainly plants but also small invertebrates, fish and mollusks.
- Habitat: Lakes, waterways.
- Threats: Man is the main responsible in the decrease of the population in some of the main sites in which the species is present. One of the main causes are episodes of lead poisoning due to the ingestion of the weights used for fishing, and hunting shot. In addition to this there are episodes of accidental capture in fishing nets and the risk associated with the ingestion of hooks. But also the collision with overhead cables, as well as the actions of direct human disturbance at the nesting sites.
Adult males and females look the same: white feathers, black legs, orange and partly black beak, curved neck, long pointed tail. The male, however, can be distinguished by a more pronounced black protuberance on the beak. Chicks have grey-brown feathers, with a white front neck and a grey beak.
As adults, these birds reach considerable dimensions: up to one and a half meters in length and a wingspan that exceeds 270 cm in the male and 240 cm in the female, characteristics that make them very skilled flyers – even if the take-off phase can be a bit complex. In flight, it keeps the neck stretched and moves its wings in a slow and harmonious way, producing a slight hiss caused by the air passing through the flight feathers.
The mute swan is present in almost all of Europe and Asia – excluding Saudi Arabia and tropical regions – and also in North Africa. It inhabits humid areas rich in vegetation, swamps, lakes or quiet bays of rivers and canals. It tends to remain very attached to its habitat especially during the nesting.
The technique that the mute swan uses to get food is very characteristic, typical of ducks that don’t dive. In fact, the bird only immerses its head, neck and chest in the water while the rest of the body remains on the surface in a vertical position. In this way it feeds on algae, aquatic plants and also on insects, larvae, small amphibians, crustaceans, small fish and tadpoles. On the mainland it also feeds on corn and leafy vegetables.
Monogamous both in captivity and in the wild, at the end of autumn they form couples that generally remain united for life. In the courtship phase – which is very interesting for its spectacularity – they become very aggressive towards intruders. Nesting takes place in spring; the nest is formed by the shore using branches and it’s placed somewhere well protected from the predators, hidden by the vegetation. The female will lay between 5 and 8 eggs, which then will be hatched together with the male for about 35 days.
The chicks at birth already know how to swim, but the parents constantly protect them, sometimes even carrying them on their backs. The entire family moves forward in single file with the mother in front, followed by the chicks, while the male closes the line. After 5 or 6 months this protective attitude is interrupted, as at the end of the winter season the offspring must be able to fend for themselves. During the breeding season, the couple removes the young born the previous summer from their territory, if necessary also assuming an aggressive attitude towards them. In particular, males in this period become quite quarrelsome.
The maintenance of suitable conditions in the main reproductive sites represents the primary form of protection of the species. Unfortunately, the limited nature of these sites does not play in favour of the mute swan, which is particularly exposed to disturbing actions by humans.
The wintering phase is very delicate too, during it, the habitats suitable for the species shrink even further. For this reason it’s essential, for the conservation of the mute swan, despite the expansion of the range recorded in recent years, to identify and protect the main sites of presence.
The protection of these habitats must be accompanied by a whole series of measures aimed at preventing the actions of human disturbance at the wintering and nesting sites, which sometimes resulted in episodes of voluntary destruction of the broods. The impact on species of human activities such as fishing and the laying of infrastructures dangerous for the mute swan such as overhead cables must also be monitored and limited. In addition, of course, to limiting the pollution of the sites as much as possible, as the species is particularly exposed to both epidemics and poisoning caused by the ingestion of contaminated sediments.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.