There can be few more majestic birds than the swan – despite it being the largest of all water fowl, it has stylish grace to dazzle aplenty.
Swans are cousins of ducks and geese and like their kin, they’re great at multitasking, being strong flyers, elegant swimmers and capable land dwellers.
That iconic image of a pair of swans, heads arranged to form a heart shape, silhouetted together on a rose-tinted lake, is often-used to represent love and affection – although a little cliché, it comes from the fact that swans are famous for mating for life, sticking together throughout the years and being faithful to one another. But…and yep sorry folks there is a but here… just like our own relationships, sometimes swan pairings do break down (this is most common if nesting has failed) and they’ll get a ‘divorce’ and move onto partners anew (at least they don’t have to pay extortionate lawyer fees I guess!!) Likewise, if one mate dies, then a new mate will be sought.
On the subject of courtship, swans become extremely territorial and protective of their nests and young – this is when you’re likely to see them at their most feisty – be warned, stay well clear, they won’t stand for any shenanigans!
Despite their spirited defence of their nests, swans are, in fact, generally quiet, sensitive, loyal and intelligent birds – they will remember who has shown them kindness and who has been mean to them – these birds are no fools – they’re definitely onto you!
Male swans are cobs and females are pens; young swans are called cygnets and a typical brood will comprise of around 5 offspring on average. These youngsters will start out in the world by hitching a ride on mum’s back, before taking to the water themselves. Their parents will continue to look after their brood until the following spring, watching over them while they learn to swim, fly and feed on their own.
In Tudor / Elizabethan times, swans were eaten and considered a great delicacy; however, due to their rarity, the monarch was given ownership of all birds in England/Wales, which resulted in their becoming unobtainable as a food source. Happily, they are now a protected species.
Like many other of their fellow fowl, swans embark on annual migrations, with some flying thousands of miles. They are robust aviators and can achieve speeds of up to 60mph (96kph) – wow!
Are you thinking that all swans are white? Well, that’s understandable, as most of the ones we see in the northern hemisphere have those gorgeous snowy coloured feathers. In fact, we didn’t know about black swans before exploration extended to the southern hemisphere. Just imagine the surprise of early explorers to see black swans in Australia! Taken with these strikingly contrasting fowl, black swans were introduced as ornamental birds into the northern hemisphere in the 1800s.
If you’ve ever wondered why you’ve never heard a swan singing, it’s because they don’t – they only trumpet or whistle – and if they’re the aptly named mute swans, they can only muster a hiss. But legend has it that a swan can in fact sing one song in its lifetime and it will do this just before it dies – hence the phrase – swan song.
Watching swans gliding effortlessly along, it’s easy to see how they inspired Tchaikovsky to write his famous musical ballet Swan Lake – a tale that sees these elegant birds morphing into equally graceful dancers.
Indeed, swans have long featured in many stories and legends: in Greek mythology Zeus transformed himself into a swan in order to successfully woo a resistant Leda. In Mongolian legend, Khori Tumed saw swans take off their feather coats and become transformed into women – he stole a coat, preventing one of them from changing back into a swan and claiming her as his bride. In Irish legend, Aoife, an evil step mother, transformed Lir’s children into swans.
Swans’ fame projects out into the cosmos too – there is a star constellation called Cygnus that is seen as a swan in flight – again there are many legends as to how it received its name: one being that Orpheus was transformed into a swan and placed into the sky after his death.
It’s easy to see how these beautiful birds have fired our imaginations for thousands of years – they’re simply stylish.