Meet the Ugly Duckling, Our most elegant bird

story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

With 25,000 gleaming white feathers covering its 25 to 30 pounds and 7-foot wingspan, the largest bird in New York heads down the watery runway. Massive wings thrash the air. Huge feet smack the water, splashing a trail of sparkling spatters. The noise echoes a mile away. Faster and faster, until the pull of air exceeds the pull of gravity. Then it’s liftoff for one of the largest flying birds in the world.

Meet the mute swan. Reduced to hisses and odd flatulent honks, it cannot enchant with song or scare with screeches.

Instead, it speaks with the elegance of a ballerina and the fearlessness of a linebacker. It charms with a long, slender neck that twists and twines in sinuous synchrony. And it elicits ooohs and aaahs that settle into deep sighs when swan partners nuzzle and then bump beaks to form a heart.

An inspiration to artists like Rembrandt and Michelangelo, it still reigns as England’s only royal bird. It stars in the 1843 story The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen–a story of bullying. A swan, hatched with ducklings, seems homely and is ostracized. Grown up, it happily realizes it wasn’t a duck, but a swan.

But today, it’s an unwanted sitting duck–tabbed an invasive species.

Where They Live

Mute swans frequent the marshes, bays, ponds and rivers along Lake Ontario; the shallow northern ends of the central Finger Lakes; Montezuma Wildlife Refuge; and Onondaga Lake. The DEC population map shows about 300 to 400 mute swans paddle the greater Finger Lakes Region with most on Lake Ontario-bordering waters. Several thousand inhabit the Staten Island waters.

Tundra and trumpeter swans also spend time here. The smaller tundra swans, Arctic migrants, visit during the winter. Sixty to 70 trumpeter swans live here year around. 

Nesting: A Time of Belligerence and Boredom

The roles of a swan pair diverge dramatically during nesting time. While the father swan is belligerent and frenzied, the mother swan’s patient sitting appears to be a Zen-like boredom. 

Swans normally mate for life. The pair build the nest together, in a spot approved by the female, usually in the same area as the previous year’s nest. Although both swans pitch in, the male does most of the work under the supervision of the female. Piece by piece, they clamp their beaks onto sticks, cattails, leaves, phragmites and other assorted vegetation and drag them to the construction site which is typically hidden in a mass of cattails. After a few weeks, a nest four to five feet wide and a few feet high (but with a depression in the middle) is ready for the female swan to lay a clutch of four to 10 eggs in late April or early May.

Through rain, relentless heat and thunder storms, the female sits and incubates her eggs. For 35 days she gives 24/7 true meaning. A few times a day, she’ll step off to feed, stretch, repair the nest, take a quick bath or take a stimulating paddle on the water.

This dedication is dismissed by Professor Emeritus Perrins (see sidebar) of Oxford University who states its standard bird practice. He countered with another example of a truly dedicated egg sitter: “The male (not female) emperor penguin incubates the egg for two months, losing about half his weight. He cannot even leave the egg for seconds or it would freeze. At least swans can wander off for a stretch and wash.”

While the female swan sits, the male patrols constantly. Back and forth he paddles, policing the perimeter out to about a 100-yard range. When an intruder crosses the invisible border, the defending male swan lowers his head with a forward tilt and gives the malevolent stare of a bull pawing the ground. This is called busking. Readying for a showdown, he cocks his wings a few inches higher and wider, and paddles like crazy at the intruder. If the trespasser doesn’t retreat fast enough, the male springs open his wings and with a few powerful beats, launches himself upright into a running position and chases down the miscreant. When he closes in, he stretches out his neck and with a last burst of speed, grabs at the intruder and may even override him to strike a few blows with his wings, using a special wing bone (think of brass knuckles) to inflict pain.

I’ve never suffered a swan attack (I can’t say the same for Canada geese) but swans can be extra aggressive during child rearing. Kayakers on Onondaga Lake have reported swan attacks.

Shortly after hatching, the cygnets begin to swim and feed. Although the adults have few predators, the cygnets are attractive prey to minks, snapping turtles, foxes, large fish, hawks, eagles and more. Fewer than half of the clutch make it to adulthood.

Cygnets provide possibly the cutest behavior in the animal world when they scramble atop their mom’s back for a secure, restful ride. Like a kid in a convertible, they often poke only their heads above her wings. The cygnets often dismount by moving forward to the mom’s neck and treat it like a water slide, with a head first slip back into the water.

Swans are big birds and big eaters. Plants in the shallows provide most of their food, but they also ingest assorted small critters. Swans are dabblers, meaning they eat by standing on their heads—sort of. In shallow water, they invert so their bottoms comically point at the sky, enabling them to extend their long necks so their beaks can reach rooted plants. They can easily eat over five pounds a day.

Growing, Growing, Gone

The cygnets grow fast. By autumn, they are almost fully grown and flying, ready to take on their first winter. Though nearly full size, they can be identified as juveniles by their large brownish patches. In cold winters, swans struggle to find food. Conserving energy becomes crucial. Territorial fights fade, sleeping grows, their long necks curled under a wing for warmth. If a squall hits, they’ll hunker down and wait it out, turning into snow-covered mounds.

The parents may guide their cygnets through their first winter, but when the spring thaw arrives and brings a new breeding cycle, they begin to drive their offspring away.

Often slow to leave, the young swans are also slow to start their own families. It will be another year or two years before they begin to look at each other with yearnings of what might be.

The Invasive Issue

With the exception of the honey bee, there’s a general consensus among wildlife experts that invasive species tend to be bad and should be managed, better yet prevented. They definitely feel this way about mute swans.

A wide array of invasive plants, insects, animals (house sparrows and starlings) and microorganisms have evaded control efforts with costly consequences. Although mute swan populations are still small, their voracious appetites and territorial attitudes can displace some native species. Easy to find, they can be controlled by addling (oiling) their eggs or killing select adults. The recent outbreak of avian flu may also reduce populations.

For now, faced with the often passionate public support for mute swans, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has reached a compromise to allow small populations of wild swans – 175 in the Lake Ontario area – to reside here. By comparison, New York’s Canada goose population can double to almost half a million birds during migration.

The DEC does note that “Mute swans are protected by the New York State Environmental Conservation Law. Therefore, swans, as well as their nests and eggs, may not be handled or harmed without authorization from the DEC.”

A Short History

The mute swan has an interesting past. It’s a native bird from England to Asia. Cave dwellers created swan paintings on their walls. With the 1482 Act for Swans, it became England’s only royal bird. The most visually stunning celebration of swans occurs in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake.

In medieval England, noblemen prized swans for their beauty and their ample supply of meat. At large festive dinners, servants would parade into the dining hall carrying whole cooked swans, complete with feathers. In the 1500s, Spaniards in Mexico took domesticated Mexican turkeys back to Europe. After the Brits got a taste of the tender and succulent turkey meat, swan meat slowly fell out of favor.

In the mid-1800s, wealthy individuals and rich municipalities brought swans from Europe to adorn estates and parks in the Northeast United States. A colorful event celebrating swans takes place in England each summer. For several days in July, the royally appointed Swan Marker and Swan Warden preside over the Swan Upping on the River Thames to check on the welfare of the swans. Professor Emeritus Christopher Perrins, 88, has been Swan Warden since 1993.

Here’s his brief description of the Upping: “They work as a single team made up of six skiffs, two each provided by the Crown (red shirts), the Vintners’ Company (blue shirts) and the Dyers’ Company (white shirts). [I and my team] follow separately in a small boat with outboard. The Uppers maneuver the skiffs to corner and capture the birds by literally pulling (‘upping’) them from the water to count and weigh them, and evaluate their health. They treat injured and ailing birds.

Fun Facts About Swans

• Some mute swans windsurf by partially opening their wings to catch a tailwind.

• Its eye is bigger than its brain.

• Swans are surprisingly fast runners, up to 20 mph. This is fast enough to have qualified to run against Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

• The long necks of quarreling males sometimes become knotted together.

• The best quills for pen and ink came from swans.

• Swans depend on critical feather performance to fly and swim. Preening daily for extended times, they clean and align their feathers with their beaks and apply a waterproofing oil from a backside gland.

• Swans can sleep for just a few seconds with one eye open, thus allowing half the brain to rest. This process is called uni-hemispheric sleep.

• Swans pant like dogs to cool off.

• They expose or hide their black feet to control their body heat.

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