Swans ... the Mute, the Bewick's and the Black.
The commonest swan you’ll see in Britain is the Mute Swan. Large white birds with orange beaks, they are called ‘mute’ because they are largely silent. They occasionally honk when flying, and if annoyed on the ground they hiss. A unique feature is you can hear the wing beats as they fly – which rumour tells us inspired Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Adult mute swans have a black knob where the the beak meets the head and it is often difficult to distinguish their eyes because they are dark brown and lie at the end of a stripe extending from the bill.
Mute swans have black feet: the cygnets are originally brown but as they grow, the brown feathers are replaced by white. However, in Poland the cygnets are born white. When you see swans swimming with their wings raised, this is their way of saying ‘keep clear’. It is best to be always wary of swans. They are always a bit aggressive, particularly in the breeding season. Again, if they suspect you of carrying food they would like, they are quite capable of mugging you.
Occasionally you see swans with brown heads and necks. This is because they’ve been feeding where there’s lots of algae or iron minerals in the water. Swans mainly eat water plants but are happy enough to come ashore and eat grass and leave lots of droppings meaning you have to be careful where you tread! They are also willing to take small mammals and are specially partial to frogs.
You will find swans everywhere in the UK because at one time they were kept for the kitchen. People ate their meat and their eggs but this has died out and all swans are the property of the Queen, so if you kill one, expect a call from the ‘men in blue’!
Mute swans are very common all along the Colne. The only other large white birds with which they could possibly be confused are feral white geese. Remember you distinguish swans by their orange beaks, black legs and a knob on the upper beak.
There is another swan that comes to Britain but it normally prefers more northern places – the whooper or Bewick’s Swan. The two sub species of bewick’s Swan, almost identical, were first described by the bird artist Thomas Bewick. They have yellow beaks without a knob and, as they fly, they emit a bugle like call. Unlike the mute swan, their wing beats are totally silent.
In several places in Britain, especially along the Thames Valley, you will find black swans with red beaks and a white stripe near the tip. They breed happily and live totally wild although they are descended from birds that escaped from wildfowl collections:: just one more alien species that has found a happy home in Britain. They originally came from Australia. You might well come across white swans with black necks and heads – these are a South American species – I don’t think there are any living wild although I’ve seen them in several zoos.
Beauty and Brains
Swan are quite intelligent – you notice if you go to places where people feed swans, the birds will often approach groups of children having learnt that they are more likely to give them food than full sized people. So when you go out and see swans, admire their beauty but feed them sparingly because bread is not their natural food. Any that falls in the water uneaten will rot and remove oxygen which is essential for a full balance of fish and crustaceans. Again, bread that falls on land and is left will encourage rats which are definitely not friends to humans.