The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

Mute Swan

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

MUTE SWAN: The Mute Swan, which is a large all-white Eurasian "pond" swan, is semi-domesticated and is now naturally wild in the Eastern United States. The 1972 Audubon Christmas count showed 2,235 birds along the Atlantic coast plus 390 in Traverse Bay, Michigan. The Mute Swan was introduced into the U.S., possibly in mid 1800's. Some people believe that the Mute Swan may have first been introduced on the large estates of eastern Long Island and the lower Hudson River Valley.

OTHER NAMES: Common Swan, Domestic Swan (in England); Wild Swan, also Tame Swan because of adaptation to presence of people. The pair of swans at the Boat Basin eats bread right out of our hands.

DESCRIPTION: The male and female are outwardly alike but the males are larger. You will notice the size difference when the birds are out of the water. The Mute Swan is 56-62 inches long; wingspan to 8-9 feet. They are distinguished from native North American swans such as the Trumpeter Swan and Whistling Swan, by their orange-colored bill, black at the base, with a prominent black knob on their forehead. When swimming, the Mute Swan holds its neck in a graceful "S" curve with its bill pointing downward. The Trumpeter and Whistling Swans usually carry their bill level with their neck erect. The male frequently arches his secondary wing feathers over his back in an aggressive display posture.

The Mute Swan is usually silent but hisses and sometimes utters puppy-like barking notes or loud high-pitched purring sounds. Their sounds are not far-reaching because their trachea is almost straight with no long convolutions as in the louder-voiced Trumpeter and Whistling swans. Their wingbeats make musical throbbing or humming sounds which can be heard from a long way off. There is usually no mass migration in spring and fall. In winter they often move from icebound freshwater ponds to nearby open salt water, where they gather in flocks of up to100.

The Central Park swans used the nest they have used for the past two years on the island in the Row Boat Lake which stretches from about 72nd Street to 79th STreet. In late April, two cygnets hatched. You can see the swan family swimming around the lake. While the cygnets are small, probably through mid June, you may get to see one of them ride on the mother's back.

Riverside Park: In September a pair of Mute Swans return to the Hudson River at the 79th Street Boat Basin where they stay through the winter. Some years they have arrived with their cygnets, and some years the pair have come without a family. Because of winter feeding by Riverside Park visitors and marina residents who supply the swans with whole grain bread, the pair remains at the Boat Basin throughout the winter and leaves for their summer breeding grounds in mid March.
Central Park: The Mute Swans of Central Park remain on the Meer or the Lake until it freezes over and then leave for the winter, returning in March. During a mild winter, like the one we just had, the swans stayed in Central Park throughout the winter. This is not the same pair that live at the Boat Basin.

FEEDING HABITS: Adults and cygnets (baby swans) seldom dive but plunge their head and neck below the surface or may tip up in deeper waters to pull at aquatic plans with their bills. Aquatic plants are their main food. Dabbling ducks like Mallards do not compete with the swans, but eat plants that float to the surface from the swans' feeding. The head and neck of the swan is sometimes stained brown from water and mud containing iron.

NESTING: The nesting pair usually maintains a large territory on a small lake or pond, only rarely nesting together in a colony. They vigorously defend their nests and young from intruders. Their nest is a large pile of aquatic plants, sticks, reeds,and roots gathered by the pair of swans on an island in pond or on its banks and lined with down and feathers.

EGGS: March 30-June 12th; average of 4-6 gray or blue-green. Incubation is usually by female alone, protected by male, 35-38 days, usually 35. Young first fly 100-120 days after hatching. Chicks light gray above, remain l day in nest. Male often takes first-hatched cygnet to water while female continues to incubate rest of eggs; chicks will ride on backs of parents or under their wings.

HISTORY: This species has been semi-domesticated in Western Europe for the last 900-1000 years. In England it is subject to special legislation and the Crown granted "royalties" enabling certain noblemen and corporations, such as livery companies of London, to own swans and to mark their bills with registered symbols or "swan Marks". Mute Swans on the Thames River not so marked were property of the Crown. Every year on the Thames, young mute swans are still caught for marking in a colorful ceremony called "Swan Upping".

AGE: Have lived 30-40 years in captivity. One reported to have lived to 70 years. Greatest ages for wild mute swans were three banded in Switzerland that were 18 and 19 years old when recovered.

FLIGHT SPEED: 50-55 m.p.h.

WEIGHT: up to 50 pounds

RANGE: Nests in British Isles, north to central Europe and North to central Asia; winters south to Northern Africa, Near East, Northwest India and Korea. In the U.S. swans wander along the Atlantic coast from eastern Massachusettes south to central New Jersey.

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