Pair Bonds and Parenting

Mute Swans are very loyal.  They mate for life and are dedicated co-parents who raise their young together.  Both parents will get the cygnets (baby swans) into the water to swim within 48 hours of hatching.  Both parents will pull up underwater plants for the cygnets to eat early on, then teach them to forage for themselves.  When the cygnets are big enough, both parents show them how to dabble (upend) to reach food on their own.  Both parents model the critical skill of preening, which is bathing, cleaning their feathers, and spreading oil over them from a gland in their tail.  Preening keeps swans waterproof, which enables them to float and stay warm.  When the cygnets’ feathers grow in, both parents teach them to fly.  This is more than just getting lift off and includes showing them safe places to land (such as on water, not roads), and how to calibrate landings, which cygnets often overshoot in their early flights. 

Parent swans teach their young to recognize and avoid dangers.  If the adults perceive a threat they will make a danger call to alert the family and quickly get the cygnets to safety.  They may also model defense postures – opening their wings and hissing at the danger, as a mother swan is doing in the photo above.

As the cygnets grow up, the parents will also teach them other defense strategies.  The cob (male/father) is the primary defender of the territory.  To keep out other swans, who would be competition, he will patrol and chase out any intruders by busking (puffing up) and advancing quickly until the intruders fly away.  The pen (female/mother) will also defend if necessary.  Cygnets need to learn this skill and at four or five months old they start to test it out.  But they are still young and often realize they don’t have the life experience to win a real battle.  Very often they beat a hasty retreat behind their dad for protection.

Mute Swan parents share these duties, but if one parent dies the other will take over and raise the cygnets alone.

In west Toronto this year one dad swan has been raising his three surviving cygnets alone since the loss of his mate on September 23.  They certainly benefited from all their mother taught them in their first 11 weeks of life, but their dad has kept them safe on his own since then and has recently taught them to fly.  His job is nearly done and they will start their independent lives soon.  Dad has done a very good job.


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