The mute swan is the largest and heaviest water bird in the British Isles. The male is known as the cob and the female as the pen. They appear identical but the male is larger, with a slightly longer head and body and wider wing span. The male has a larger knob or berry at the base of the bill. In their natural habitat they can live for 20 years or more.

The Mute Swan is a well-loved favourite of birdwatchers, but it is also a threat to native species and habitats. Known as the Queen’s Bird, this species has a voracious appetite and feasts on vegetation including underwater plants, which they reach with their long necks. The Mute Swan is one of the largest birds in the province. They are less vocal than other swans, though, despite their name, they do grunt, whistle and snort. If you get too close to a swan, especially during nesting, you may also hear hissing – a warning to stay away.

The size of the territory may be determined by the amount of natural food. In areas where the supply of common duckweed or similar is plentiful pairs may breed in fairly close proximity. Territorial disputes can involve fights to the death – usually by drowning. A pair of swans will generally remain in the same area for life and paired, provided both swans remain healthy, will stay together. Whilst unlikely to pine to death at the loss of a mate swans will generally go through a period of mourning. There are, however, instances of swans changing partners, usually where a stronger cob takes over.

Swans breed in the Spring, laying an egg every other day and only commencing brooding after the clutch is complete. The female has a brood patch and will incubate the eggs for 35-42 days turning the eggs with her bill. The male will keep the eggs warm and protect the nest whilst the female leaves the nest to feed and preen. The whole clutch of eggs generally hatches within a 24 hour period, the cygnets remain on the nest for a further 24 hours and then take to the water. The parents pull up weed and stir up sediment from the river bed for the cygnets.

The mute swan is generally believed to have been brought to other countries from Turkey. Wealthy Guilds and landowners kept swans in flocks for the table. The only remaining private flock of swans is at Abbotsbury in Dorset. Needless to say they are no longer eaten. Ownership of swans on the River Thames is still held by the Crown, The Worshipful Company of Dyers and The Worshipful Company of Vintners – the annual ceremony of Swan Upping is the traditional time for marking new cygnets. The marking of the beaks has been discontinued and the livery companies now fit a metal ring to the leg. The Queen’s swans have no additional ring.

Swans, their nests and eggs are protected by law and it is illegal to interfere with them in any way. They may only be removed or handled by recognised groups who should act in the best interest of a sick or injured bird.

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