The Mute swan is known as an integral feature of our urban parks as well as most of the waterways in our regions. But originally this beautiful white bird was a wild animal, not always with compatible behavior and habits for life in city parks. It is also amongst the heaviest of the world's flying birds. They are easy to recognize with their combination of a large size, a very long neck, white feathers and orange-red beaks with a black ridge towards the top.
Mute swans breed in north central Europe, the British Isles, and north central Asia. They spend winter as far to the south as the Near East, North Africa, and Korea and northwest India. They have been introduced successfully in North America, now being widespread there and permanently living in many areas. They prefer well-sheltered bays, lakes, ponds and open marshes.
The swans inhabiting cold areas migrate south for wintering. Other swans stay in breeding areas or join up with other wintering flocks. They will sometimes travel to molt. They feed during the daytime, by dabbling on the water surface and upending. While swimming they hold their neck with a graceful curve, the bill pointing downward. Males are very territorial and will chase intruders away. Disputes over territory may result in males fighting aggressively, rushing at each other and sliding along the water's surface. Mute swans make a range of vocalizations, such as a rumbling 'heeorr', and hissing aggressively when threatened.
Mute swans are serially monogamous and remain together for at least one season. Males may, however, have four mates, and even "divorce" to have another female. They seldom nest in colonies. The breeding starts in March or early in April. The swans either form a new nest or make use of a previously constructed mound, like a muskrat house. Nest building is done by both parents, the male bringing the nest material to the female. They build it well above the usual water level in swampy close to a pond or lake. Females lay 5 to 12 eggs, and incubation lasts around 36-38 days, which is done mainly by the female while her mate defends the territory. The chicks hatch over a period of 26 hours and both parents look after the young. The female broods the cygnets and they often ride on their mother's back from the age of 10 days. Two months after hatching the chicks are fully feathered. They stay with their parents until the following spring and breeding season. At three years old they are sexually mature.
The main threat currently to these swans is lead poisoning in ponds and lakes.
According to Wikipedia, the total native population of these swans is about 500,000 individuals (adults and young), of which 350,000 live in the former Soviet Union. 11,000 pairs of birds in the Volga Delta is the largest breeding concentration in the world. In the United Kingdom the population is about 22,000 birds. In introduced areas populations remain small: there are about 200 swans in Japan, New Zealand and Australia have fewer than 200 and in South Africa there are about 120 swans. Currently Mute swans are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN list of threatened species and their numbers today are increasing.
Mute swans affect aquatic vegetation communities as a result of their grazing. A study in Maryland found swans eat as much as 8 pounds a day of underwater aquatic vegetation, removing habitat and food for other species more quickly than these grasses could recover.
For many centuries, in Britain Mute swans were domesticated for food, individuals being marked by nicks in their webbed feet or their beak to indicate ownership. Such marks became registered with the Crown; also the appointment was made of a Royal Swanherd. Any birds without these marks became Crown property, thus the swan was known by the name of the "Royal Bird". Quite possibly this domestication prevented the swan in Britain from being hunted until extinction. Feathers were used for writing quills, purses were made out of the leathery web, and whistles were made from the wing bones.