The arrival of the whooper swans in their traditional winter quarters traditionally means the imminent start of winter in central Europe – if the cold didn’t arrive already. The swans in the snowy landscape are a view to behold at least once in a lifetime. These large white birds migrate to their wintering grounds in family groups that stick together until the end of winter. In this way, the young ones will learn from their parents the journey they, as well, will follow throughout their entire life.
Everything you need to know about the whooper swan:
The whooper swan’s size is comparable to the one of the mute swan but way less graceful than its noble cousin, it also has a black beak with a large yellow area at the base and a different anatomy of the trachea. Further peculiarities of the whooper swan are the neck, which is held straight, and the emission of a call similar to a trumpet blast. These swans come from the Arctic tundra and fly in typical “V” formations following the rivers in search of grasslands, pastures and arable land. The regular wintering sites of the whooper swan are the coasts of Holland and Belgium, up to England, marginally also in central Europe. In the flocks it is possible to identify the various families, made up of two adults and several young ones, easily recognizable thanks to the uniformly grey-brown plumage and the pinkish beak.
Except for the reproduction period, it is gregarious and can form mixed groups with both Mute Swan and Tundra Swan especially in the wintering areas. The flight is straight with slow and powerful wing beats, it keeps its neck straight out and the flocks has the characteristic V-shape or oblique line formations. It takes off with difficulty and on land it walks rather slow, but swims elegantly by keeping most of the time the neck erect and the head at a 90° angle. For a long time the elegance and style of a whooper swan gently gliding over a lake has been appreciated and represented an ideal of beauty. So much, so that its well coordinated movements in and out of the water, brought the beautiful whooper swan to inspire musical compositions as well as fairy tales, poems and legends.
- Scientific name: Cygnus cygnus.
- Weight: 8,000 – 11,000 g.
- Length: 140 – 160 cm.
- Wingspan: 205 – 235 cm.
- Age: Up to 35 years.
- Diet: Plants, water buds and grass.
- Habitat: Lakes and waterways.
- Threats: While colliding with power lines it’s not a big problem for the whooper swan, its greatest threats are disturbances, habitat reduction and deterioration, poaching and lead and pesticides pollution.
Adult males and females are indistinguishable and have a completely white plumage. The beak’s base is yellow and the tip is black. The legs are completely black. The young and the chicks have a brown-grey color, while the beak is dull yellow with little black on; when growing they will gradually take on the plumage and appearance of adults.
The whooper swan is a migrant bird that frequents the open areas of lakes, estuaries, large rivers and sea coasts of northern Europe (north of the 55th parallel) and central-northern Asia. The coasts of Black Sea, Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean are where it typically spends its winters. It can be found nesting on the small islands of marshy areas, basins of lakes and also in the tundra.
It feeds mainly on water based plants but also grass, grain and crop type of food such as potatoes and carrots – particularly in the winter when other food is scarce. Only the young ones feed on small crustaceans and water bugs, this is where they get the proteins that, unlike in adulthood, are highly required to grow. As they do so, their diet will progressively change to a plant based diet which includes any type of vegetation and roots they can find in the water.
They use to their advantage the long necks to dive in deeper waters than other ducks and geese. Arriving to feed in 1.2 meters deep, biting off any plant growing under the water.
Both parents work towards a successful construction of the nest: the male is in charge of providing the materials while the female is in charge of arranging it. The nest is made up of a cluster of marsh plants and moss kept together with mud. Often the same nest is used for many seasons, undergoing rearrangements throughout the years when necessary. It has one brood only during a year laying the eggs sometime around the end of May and June.
The 3-5 eggs that are laid will then be incubated singlehandedly by the female for about 35-40 days after the last egg has been laid, so that hatching will happen simultaneously. The male keeps himself to supervisory duties. The chicks are precocious and at the age of about 3 months they are already able to fly. The egg doesn’t show any distinctive sign, it’s white or shaded in yellow and will then become mottled brown or yellow during the incubation.
Whooper swans couples stay together for life and they’ll always be protective of each other. They kiss by touching their beaks and when they do so, a heart shape is formed by their necks – can a bird be more romantic!
The good news is that the breeding population in Northern Europe is slowly but steadily increasing, while the bad news is that the breeding population in Central Siberia is decreasing. An important problem and a limiting factor for this species is the destruction of submerged wetland vegetation. Particularly in Asia, the whooper swans are terribly affected by human activities such as illegal hunting, destruction of the nest and the loss and degradation of their habitat, which obviously includes large reclamations of both coastal and inland wetlands
On the IUCN Red List the whooper swan is classified as Least Concern (LC) with an estimated worldwide population of about 180,000 specimens of which as much as 100,000 mating couples and 10,000 wintering individuals in the Russian range. The European range counts around 30,000 couples to which corresponds 51,000 – 65,000 adult individuals.
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.