Swans are among the biggest of the flying birds. Three of the largest species are the whooper, mute and trumpeter swans, which are over 1.5 meters (59 in) long, weighing 15 kg (33 lb), with a wingspan of about 3 meters (10 ft). Males and females look alike, but the male is larger. Northern hemisphere species are white all over, whilst those of the Southern hemisphere are black with white flight feathers, such as the Australian black swan or have a black neck, like the South American black-necked swan. When specimens of the black swan were first brought to Europe in the late 18th Century, they caused a sensation. Empress Josephine of France kept several in her garden. Leg and bill color varies between species, and swans, unlike most birds, have tooth-like serrations along their beaks, to help in catching fish.
Swan eating a fish. © Ian Glover.
Where you can’t find swans?
There are no swans naturally in Africa, North America or Asia. Most swan species are either fully or partially migratory, especially those living in cold parts of the world, such as the Tundra swan and the whooper swan. The Australian Black Swan, being native to a temperate climate doesn’t migrate. To humans, swans are an ancient symbol of love, as they are believed to form lifelong relationships. The bond between pairs does last for years, sometimes for life, and is strong even when the pair is part of a migratory flock – although pairs do separate, particularly after an unsuccessful nesting season. Unlike geese and ducks, the male helps in building the nest and incubating the eggs, and are aggressive in protecting their nest.
A swan’s diet
A mute swan eating vegetation. Notice the swan’s beak with serrated edges, which is useful for catching/eating aquatic plants, fish, algae, molluscs, frogs and worms. © Andy Vernom.
Being aquatic birds, swans source most of their diet from the ponds, lakes and seas where they live. Most of a swan’s diet is made up of aquatic plants such as pond weed, tubers, stems, leaves and flowers. It is easy for wild swans to fly between bodies of water in search of new sources of food. Swans raised in captivity must be provided with a similar diet. Swans will also forage on land for insects, and invertebrates such as snails, worms and caterpillars. Water beetles and insects flying over water are also fair game to a swan, and mature swans will also eat fish and any small aquatic invertebrates they are able to catch. Domesticated swans are often fed grain and vegetable scraps if they are not provided with plenty of suitable food. Most of the time, they are likely to wander away to find food themselves.
Swan are a big part of the human culture
Swans have featured strongly in human history, through the mythology of the different cultures where swans are found, in art, opera, and literature. The main reason the black swan was so amazing to Europeans was that for centuries the idea of a swan being black was so improbable and absurd that the suggestion became a metaphor for ideas outside the norm, so that when black swans were shown to be real, it meant that the improbable had come to pass. Another early reference to the black swan as an impossibility was Juvenal’s (a Roman poet, 2nd century AD) comment that a good woman was a rare bird, as rare on earth as a black swan. It serves him right for being a misogynist that he was proved wrong!
The mute swan
The mute swan, which has been transported to all continents except Antarctica is the subject of many of the Asian and European stories. There are many stories in which the swan is able to take human form, the gods are able to take swan form or the humans are transformed into swans. It was thought that the mute swan was heard just as it died, hence the phrase swansong. In fact, the mute swan makes a range of sounds, including a nasty hissing noise.
Related birds and their diets
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