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Mute Swan

Cygnus olor ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The exotic Mute Swan is the elegant bird of Russian ballets and European fairy tales. This swan swims with its long neck curved into an S and often holds its wings raised slightly above its back. Although they’re numerous and familiar in city parks and in bays and lakes in the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Midatlantic, Mute Swans are not native to North America. Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
50–59.8 in
127–152 cm
Wingspan
81.9–93.7 in
208–238 cm
Weight
194–504.4 oz
5500–14300 g
Relative Size
Among the largest of waterfowl: more than double the size of a Snow Goose and about the same size as a Trumpeter Swan.
Other Names
  • Cygne tuberculé (French)
  • Cisne vulgar (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • All of the Mute Swans in North America descended from swans imported from Europe from the mid 1800s through early 1900s to adorn large estates, city parks, and zoos. Escapees established breeding populations and are now established in the Northeast, Midatlantic, Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest of the U.S.
  • Mute Swans form long-lasting pair bonds. Their reputation for monogamy along with their elegant white plumage has helped establish them as a symbol of love in many cultures.
  • The Mute Swan is reported to mate for life. However, changing of mates does occur infrequently, and swans will remate if their partner dies. If a male loses his mate and pairs with a young female, she joins him on his territory. If he mates with an older female, they go to hers. If a female loses her mate, she remates quickly and usually chooses a younger male.
  • The black knob at the base of the male Mute Swan's bill swells during the breeding season and becomes noticeably larger than the female's. The rest of the year the difference between the sexes is not obvious.
  • Downy young Mute Swans (called cygnets) come in two color morphs: a gray form and a white form. The gray (or "Royal") chicks start off with gray down and grow in gray-brown and white feathers, giving them a mottled look. White (or "Polish") chicks have all white down and juvenal feathers. Adults of the white morph may have pink or gray legs and feet instead of black, but otherwise the adults look alike.
  • Mute Swans have enormous appetites. A Maryland study found they ate up to 8 pounds a day of submerged aquatic vegetation, removing food and habitat for other species faster than the grasses could recover.
  • Give plenty of space to nesting Mute Swans. They can be extremely aggressive and frequently attack canoeists, kayakers, and pedestrians who wander too close to a nest or chicks.
  • Hans Christian Andersen’s fairly tale The Ugly Duckling chronicles the woes and triumphs of a young, Mute Swan that hatches in a clutch of duck eggs but goes on to become a beautiful swan. Some speculate that the book was based on Andersen’s own less-than-handsome looks as a youngster.
  • Mute Swans can adapt to degraded habitat and actually benefit from the spread of the invasive common reed Phragmites australis, which flourishes in disturbed sites. As the reeds spread into lakes and ponds, the swans can build nests farther offshore in the reed beds, where they’re safer from egg predators.
  • Based on banding records, the oldest known Mute Swan in North America was a 26 year, 9 month old male banded in Rhode Island.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Mute Swans mainly eat aquatic vegetation, along with some animal prey including frogs, tadpoles, fish, snails, mollusks and insects. In a Michigan study swans ate more animals during their annual molt and in spring when vegetation was scarce. Plant foods include eelgrass, several species of pondweeds, along with filamentous algae, wigeon grass, sea lettuce, bladderwort, flowering grasses, and agricultural grains. They also eat handouts from people, including cracked corn, bread, lettuce, and produce trimmings. Mute Swans are voracious foragers, eating up to 8 pounds of aquatic plants a day that they tear off with their thick, rough-edged bills anchored by strong bill muscles. They skim plants from the surface and submerge all but their tail and feet to reach vegetation growing in deeper water. They also rake the bottom with their feet to expose tubers and dig up plants to bring to the surface.

Food


Plants

Mute Swans mainly eat aquatic vegetation, along with some animal prey including frogs, tadpoles, fish, snails, mollusks and insects. In a Michigan study swans ate more animals during their annual molt and in spring when vegetation was scarce. Plant foods include eelgrass, several species of pondweeds, along with filamentous algae, wigeon grass, sea lettuce, bladderwort, flowering grasses, and agricultural grains. They also eat handouts from people, including cracked corn, bread, lettuce, and produce trimmings. Mute Swans are voracious foragers, eating up to 8 pounds of aquatic plants a day that they tear off with their thick, rough-edged bills anchored by strong bill muscles. They skim plants from the surface and submerge all but their tail and feet to reach vegetation growing in deeper water. They also rake the bottom with their feet to expose tubers and dig up plants to bring to the surface.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.5–4.6 in
9–11.6 cm
Egg Width
2.3–2.9 in
5.9–7.4 cm
Incubation Period
34–41 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Blue-green when laid, changing to white and chalky. Sometimes stained olive-brown from material on parents’ feet.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes open, clumsy, covered in wet white or gray down. Able to move around nest, feed and enter water as soon as down dries. Is able to fly at 65 days after hatching.
Nest Description

The male Mute Swan starts the nest by building a platform of crisscrossed vegetation, often on the site of a nest from a previous year. He then places vegetation next to the platform for the female, who piles the material onto the nest base, using her body and feet to mold a nest cup. Nesting materials include twigs, reeds, cattails, cordgrasses, sedges, rushes, bulrushes, other grasses, and occasionally pebbles. The cup can contain rotting vegetation and some down. The finished nest reaches 5 feet across at the base and 1.5–2.1 feet high, with a nest cup 15 inches across and 3–10 inches deep. Construction takes about 10 days, and the pair may add to the nest during egg laying and brooding.

Nest Placement

Ground

Male Mute Swans select the nest site and may start several nests before the female accepts the location. Nest sites are safe from flooding yet offer easy access to water, with ample nesting materials and food nearby–often on a small peninsula, along a heavily vegetated shoreline, or on a small to medium-sized island.

Behavior


Dabbler

Short legs placed well back on the body give Mute Swans an awkward walking gait, but the birds can run quickly if pursued and can take off from land and water, flying with head and neck extended. On the water they sometimes hold their wings slightly raised and “sail” with the wind. Mute Swans are predominantly monogamous and form long-lasting breeding pairs. They are extremely aggressive in defending their breeding territory. Before or during landing at a breeding site they’ll slap the water with their feet to announce their arrival and alert potential intruders. If another swan approaches members of the pair raise their wings and tuck their neck in a “busking” display to warn them off. Territorial defenses sometimes escalate to fights between males that can end with the dominant bird pushing its rival underwater. Mute swans also chase off ducks, geese, gulls, dogs, and humans. The aggressive nature and enormous appetites of these nonnative birds pose a problem for wildlife managers: Mute Swans displace native species from breeding and foraging sites, and can damage feeding habitat by overgrazing aquatic vegetation

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Mute Swan populations have increased strongly since 1966—by an average of 3.7% per year, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey (representing a quintupling of the population over the whole period). With few natural predators, numbers of these aggressive non-natives can build quickly, displace native species, and damage aquatic habitat by overgrazing vegetation, creating a dilemma for wildlife and habitat managers. In the Maryland region of Chesapeake Bay, Mute Swans drove the last colony of Black Skimmers off their breeding grounds and trampled Least Tern nests and nestlings on the bay’s sandbars. Mute Swans are also displacing Black Tern colonies in New York. A number of states have adapted measures—including addling eggs and culling birds—to control Mute Swan numbers, although these measures tend to generate public controversy. In Maryland, a population of over 4,000 had been reduced to fewer than 100 birds by 2012. Control efforts are also in place in the Central and Pacific Flyways, where wildlife managers are removing Mute Swans in efforts to reestablish Trumpeter Swan populations. Due in part to poor forward vision and maneuverability, Mute Swans are injured and killed by impacts with powerlines and other structures. They are also affected by lead poisoning from spent shot and fishing weights.

Credits

  • Ciaranca, Michael A., Charles C. Allin and Gwilym S. Jones. 1997. Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 273 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
  • Allen, J., and D. Strain. 2013. Aquatic invasive species in Chesapeake Bay: Mute Swan. Maryland Sea Grant Publication No. UM-SG-PI-2013-01.
  • Weller, M. W. 2001. Ducks, geese, and swans. In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, C. Elphic, J. B. Dunning, Jr., and D. A. Sibley (eds.). Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2013. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2013 analysis.

Range Map Help

Mute Swan Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Nonmigratory. Mute Swan pairs remain on the breeding grounds year-round unless severe weather forces them to move to avoid ice and find food.

Find This Bird

Mute Swans were first brought to North America to decorate ponds and lakes in towns and cities, and that’s still the best place to find these familiar waterfowl. You may also find them on shallow wetlands, lakes, rivers, and estuaries within the scattered range where they’ve become established in the wild.

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