About Mute Swans

Mute Swans (whose Latin species name is cygnus olor) are the intelligent, majestic, orange-beaked water birds. They have been the subject of myth and art and a symbol of beauty and love for centuries. They are admired and beloved by many in Canada and around the world for their lasting pair bonds and the care both parents give to raising their young. 

Mute Swans are not actually mute. Cygnets (their young) making cheeping noises in their early months, then begin to grunt. Adults use specific calls to summon their young or warn of danger. They also grunt, snort, and even, on occasion, purr. 

Mute Swans

As of the 2017 Midsummer Mute Swan Survey (the last one flown), Mute Swans had reached approximately 15% of their carrying capacity (which is the maximum population that can be sustained in a given environment) in the Lower Great Lakes. At that time 4,103 Mute Swans were counted.

While the Mute Swan population is growing, the size of each pair’s territory and the fact that they keep out others of their species, means they are naturally thinly, not densely, distributed.

Mute Swan population area in southern Ontario

Fully grown males weigh approximately 26 lbs/12 kgs and females approximately 22 lbs/10 kgs. Their wingspan is over 5 feet/ 150 cm.

The only waterbird larger than Mute Swans are Trumpeter Swans, distinguished by their black beaks and trumpet-like calls.

Toronto skyline in the background with a Mute swan with it's wings spread

In Ontario, Canada, Mute Swans live and breed primarily in the Lower Great Lakes region. During winter they will migrate as far south as they need to to find open water.

Field map with a camera, bag over a map

Paired Mute Swans defend large territories and keep out other Mutes. While they peck at other waterbirds from time to time, they tolerate them and their young. They fight for territory primarily with other swans.

Flocks are usually made up of unpaired juveniles and older unsuccessful breeders. Flocks will often migrate together or gather in winter where there is open water, which they need to forage for food. 

Mute Swans and ducks floating on the water during the winter

After leaving their parents at six to 10 months of age, juvenile swans often live and travel in flocks until they reach sexual maturity at two or three years old.  They then select a mate.

Mating and Breeding: As breeding season begins, the male (called the cob) and the female (called the pen) spend about three weeks in March and April building a nest. They pick a place for the nest that will be as safe as possible from predators and flooding, but close enough to the water that their cygnets will be able to get in soon after they hatch.

The swans’ mating ritual begins with calls and greetings, synchronized neck movements, and rhythmic head-dunking. The cob then positions himself on the pen’s back. He uses his beak to pull up on her neck, so her head is not submerged. Mating concludes with the swans rising out of the water, chest to chest, and purring.

During breeding season, the pen lays an egg every day or two until the clutch (complete set of eggs) numbers somewhere between five and nine eggs. She does not start incubating the eggs until the clutch is complete. During incubation the pen stays on the nest continuously and rarely leaves it. She develops a nearly featherless area on her abdomen, called a brood patch, where her almost-bare skill will come in contact with the eggs and keep them warmed.  She also regularly rotates the eggs with her beak, so they heat and develop evenly. This is how Mute Swans’ eggs hatch at the same time, despite being laid over many days.

Because the pen does not leave the nest often, even to eat, she grows weaker and increasingly vulnerable. The cob sleeps on land near her at night (not on the water, as both would often do at other times of year), to protect her and the eggs. The balance of the time he can often be found patrolling their territory to keep out other swans. Other swans could be competitors for his family’s territory and would attack and possibly kill his cygnets.

Hatching: About 35 days after incubation starts, all eggs hatch within a day of each other, usually in May. The cygnets use an “egg tooth,” a small protrusion on their bills, to score the inside of the egg shells, make cracks, and spread those cracks into holes from which they can emerge. Hatching can take several hours and is very tiring for the babies. When they first hatch they are grey and wet, but soon dry off and become fluffy. At this stage their bills are black.

They spend their first several hours in the nest under their mother’s outspread wings. They sleep and begin to explore their new environment.

Within 24 hours, the new parents lead them into the water to learn to swim, eat, and drink.

A few days after hatching the family abandons the nest. Any unhatched eggs are left behind. They will not return to the nest after this, though the parents will likely use the same site next spring if they found it safe and successful.

Common Behaviours: As the cygnets mature, the family spends time swimming, eating, preening. Mute Swans have approximately 25,000 feathers. Preening involves both cleaning them to ensure they are free from dirt and parasites, and distributing oil over them, from a gland near their tail. This is to ensure the feathers remain waterproof. Being waterproof is critical to swans’ survival, especially in winter.

Bathing is another way swans keep clean. A swan bath involves vigorous flapping, dunking, and surfacing, often while rolling from one side to the other. It is quite dramatic, can go on for several minutes, and once one swan starts, others in the family or flock tend to join in for a group bath time.

In the summer, the parents take turns moulting, which is when they lose their flight feathers. During their annual moult, Mute Swans are flightless.

Also in the summer the cygnets start to grow real feathers of their own, replacing their fluffy down.

Come fall, with flight feathers regrown, the mother and father teach the youngsters to fly.

Approximately half the cygnets will survive to fledge (grow feathers and fly off to start their own lives).

Identification: Juveniles can be identified as young birds by the mix of white and grey/brown feathers and the beak that is just starting to turn from black to orange.

Fully grown adults have completely white feathers and orange bills.

Approximately 35 days after incubation starts, all eggs will hatch within a day of each other in May.

Mute Swans’ diet consists primarily of underwater plants (called submerged or subaquatic vegetation or SAV), which they can reach by upending and extending their necks underwater. Parents will pull up SAV for their cygnets to eat, or paddle to churn up water plants and bugs before the cygnets are able to fully fend for themselves.

Because of their long necks they must drink as they eat. Feeding them on the shore, especially human food, is dangerous. They can choke without water.  Processed foods like bread can also cause a condition called “angel wing” in cygnets, where the bones in their wings develop abnormally. This can make them flightless and very vulnerable to predators. 

Mute swans

Mute Swan eggs are very vulnerable to almost any predator – from herons to raccoons, foxes, minks, and coyotes.

If the eggs hatch, Mute Swans have about a 50% survival rate to age one.  Most mortality occurs in the first two weeks of life. Young cygnets’ most common causes of death include cold and storms and predation. For older juveniles and adults,  causes of death include watercraft, cars, fishing line and hooks, fireworks, hydro lines, poles, and hard-to-see obstacles, netting, and other human debris and activity. Coyotes, wolves, foxes, off-leash dogs, minks, snapping turtles, rats, gulls, and raccoons are all predators of swans, and injure or kill swans much more frequently than the reverse. Disease and weather events can also kill adults. There was higher than usual mortality among Mute Swans in Ontario due to starvation in the extremely cold winters of 2014 and 2015 and due to flooding in 2017.

Mute Swans’ average life expectancy in the wild is 11 years.

Destroyed mute swan egg

Mute swans are large, visible, tend to live in urban wetlands, and are accustomed to people. This means we humans can watch and get to know them in ways that are quite unique.

Humans should not be interacting with larger mammals, such as foxes and coyotes. Smaller mammals, like squirrels, are often indistinguishable from each other. And other waterbirds, like ducks and geese, have babies that soon look just like their parents.

Mute Swans, by contrast, tend to be fewer in number than other waterbirds and because the parents protect the territory, they become longstanding residents that we recognize and get to know. They recognize individual people so they can also get to know us.

Being urban animals, they often build nests within view, and we can watch the nest taking shape. Within a day of hatching we can witness the cygnets’ first swim. Their grey/brown feathers take months to change to white so the babies remain identifiable as we watch them grow up, learn to forage, make their first awkward flights, and ultimately, to fly off to start their own lives while the parents stay behind to raise another family next year.

These factors mean we can have a genuine connection to a wild animal – close to home if we are fortunate enough to live near a lake or pond.

As Dan Keel says in his book Swan, “I had a bond with swans that I could not forge with any other bird.” That bond is one of life’s great joys.

Parents Mute Swans taking care of very young cygnets.

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