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Mute Swans Family Life

Dear Bird Folks,

A pair of swans nested in the bog near my house last summer. The parents successfully hatched out four baby swans (cygnets). Everything was going fine until one day, in late summer, the adults and two of the babies moved to a different part of the bog. Two of the young birds were left behind to fend for themselves. Eventually all the swans ended up on the same pond, but the two rejected birds kept their distance from the family. Then the winter came, the endless blizzards hit and now I don’t know who’s who. Why were two of the birds separated from the family? Are four kids too many?

-Hope, Essex, CT


Don’t Be Upset Hope,

For the sake of keeping thousands of innocent trees out the paper mills, I had to shorten your rather lengthy question. In fact, I now know more about your swan family than I do about my own family. Still, it was a good question. Actually, it was more of a soap opera than a question. It was like reading the “Swans of Our Lives, the Waterfowl Addition.”

For many amateur birdwatchers, Mute Swans create an unusual conflict. We admire the bird for its stately grace and beauty, but condemn it as an introduced species. The Newport crowd introduced these swans to North America one hundred years ago. Much like the starling, the Norway Rat and the Europeans themselves, this introduced species has caused nothing but trouble since it arrived. It looks like a beautiful bird to most of us, but in reality the Mute Swan is nothing but a big fat starling. Don’t shoot the messenger here Hope, but if you are old enough to write a forty-five page question, you are old enough to hear the ugly truth.

At a weight that often tops thirty pounds, the Mute Swan is one of the largest and most powerful flying birds on the planet. It will easily chase off, attack or kill ducks, geese, tern chicks or any ground nesting bird that attempts to breed in its territory. Even humans are not immune from these aggressive birds. Both kids and adults have been attacked and injured when they have wandered to closely to nesting swans. I would be willing to bet that more people have been attacked by Mute Swans than have ever been injured by coyotes, but creating coyote hysteria sells more papers. With either creature, a little common sense will keep you safe. On the up side, Mute Swans hate Jet Skis and have been known to knock riders right off into the water. So I guess they aren’t all that bad.

Native to Eurasia, Mute Swans were an important early food supply. It certainly would be extinct today if wasn’t for the fact that they can be easily raised in captivity. British nobility would raise hundreds of them in swanneries. (That last fact really doesn’t have much to do with your question, but I hated to pass up the chance to write “swanneries.”) Even in England today there is an official “Swan Keeper.” I’m not kidding. You know that’s got to be a state job.

Even though I’m not a big fan of having Mute Swans in North America, I am a bit surprised by your story. Usually swans are excellent parents. They are all about the kids. They are the only waterfowl in North America where the male will assist with the incubation. They even time their annual molt so one parent is always ready to protect the cygnets. A swan molt can take up to six weeks to complete. During that time the birds aren’t able to fly. The female molts while the male stays ready to protect the family. Once the female is able to fly again, the male has his molt.

The brood size can range from four to ten chicks, with the average being around six. So no, four kids are not too many, although that would be way, way, way too many for me to have. Typically, the family group remains together into the fall, when the adults drive off the kids in order to start the breeding process over again.

I can only guess at why two of your young swans were separated from the family group. It could have been that their growth was delayed for some reason. The two runts may not have been ready to fly when the family moved to a more productive part of the territory. When the separated birds were finally able to rejoin the flock, the two little swans may have totally bonded with each other and were less attached to the family. And thus ends another chapter of the “Swans of Our Lives.”