History, folklore and even astronomy traditionally portraits swans as elegant and beautiful creatures. You could therefore, be forgiven for thinking that swans are gentle, docile creatures, but in reality jostling, honking and flapping swans are a force to be reckoned with, especially when it comes to long-distance migration. Swans travel an estimated 60,000 miles in their lifetime as a result of migration. Migration is a perilous, exhausting journey, but a necessary one; undertaken in response to food availability, habitat and adverse weather conditions. As Britain’s largest flying bird, and one of the world’s heaviest, the size of the swans’ body makes the take off and landing process both a difficult and clumsy action. However once in the air, they can fly for around ten hours!
How birds navigate such long journeys still remains a mystery; research shows they use visual clues, such as coastlines or mountain passages. Despite this swans choose to fly at night, benefitting from cooler temperatures and lower humidity. So how do they find their way? Birds are said to have three internal compasses; a sun compass, a magnetic compass and a star compass.
There are three species of swan found in the UK; Mute, Bewick’s and Whooper (pronounced ‘Hooper’). The Mute swan is our resident swan, and the only one to breed naturally in the UK. Instantly recognisable by their ‘s-shaped neck’, and orange bill with a black knob, it is possible to see Mute swans anywhere there is a shallow lake, especially in urban areas and parks. Their arctic cousin, the Bewick’s swan, has more black and less yellow on their bill. They are named after fellow North East resident and engraver Thomas Bewick who was a keen ornithologist, hence the large number of birds featured in his artwork. Finally, the Whooper, larger than a Bewick’s swan, has a long straight neck, a black bill with a triangular patch of yellow, and black legs. Whooper swans migrate to the UK from Iceland, roosting in estuaries and wetlands in the winter.
Courtship and Mating
Swans are regarded as a symbol of love and fidelity, thanks to their long-lasting monogamous relationships. Swans tend to mate for life, but ‘divorce’ has been known to occur. If a pair show difficulty breeding, or one mate dies, the other may abandon the flock in search of a new mate. Dashing any hopes of eternal romance, swan expert Martin Schuyl notes that ‘occasional mating with other swans outside the pair has also been observed, and if the opportunity arises, swans will cheat on their partners’. Some males have even been seen raising two families at the same time. Early Spring heralds the beginning of a swan’s elaborate courtship and the pair will swim closely together for several days, the male following the female. The lovers will then entwine their necks, and kiss one another, tilting their heads to form a heart shape.
Swans have been a ‘royal bird’ since the twelfth century, having been formally assigned Royal Status in the Act Of Swans 1482. Edward IV approved An Act For Swans which meant only the King, or wealthy landowners could own swans. Ownership was proved by carving the family emblem on the bird’s beak, and any swan held by a ‘commoner’ could be seized by a member of the aristocracy and added to their collection. A bureaucracy and a court were set up to enforce the law and regulate any disputes over ownership. Today, practices are considerably less barbaric, but the monarchy does still claim ownership of unmarked swans, on stretches of the Thames and its surrounding estuaries. Under a Royal Charter dating from the 15th century, The Vintners and the Dyers (two Livery Companies from London), are entitled to share ownership of Mute swans with the Queen. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it is illegal to injure, take, or kill a swan, a punishable offence that is still upheld today. During the 1960s the population of Mute swans decreased dramatically due to lead poisoning from weights discarded by fishermen. The swans would ingest weights during feeding, with the lead slowly poisoning them to death. The subsequent banning of the use of lead weights thankfully led to an increase in numbers.
Swans have not just become part of our language, but also part of our culture. For example one is said to ‘swan around’ when behaving pompously, or a last performance, or piece of work is referred to as a ‘swan song’ stemming from the ancient Greek belief that a swan was silent except for the one song it sang before dying. Swans also feature in everything from astronomy, and folklore, to art and poetry. The Wild Swans at Coole is a beautiful collection of poems by William Butler Yeats, in which he depicts the swans’ gentility and grace;
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Next time you pass a honking, hissing flock of these white, winged beauties, take a moment to congratulate them on their amazing journey. With their close family bonds, long-lasting relationships and perilous journeying endeavours, we can all learn a lot from swans.