A Swan’s Life
Swans are creatures of habit, often mating for life and breeding in the same place year after year. In early spring established pairs engage in elaborate courtship rituals and begin building their large sturdy nests from sticks and vegetation at the water’s edge. In late April about six round, greyish-green eggs are laid.
During the breeding season the male or ‘cob’ becomes particularly aggressive, raising his wings and hissing threateningly whenever an intruder approaches the nest. As swans can deal a nasty blow with their wings they are best avoided at this time. Rival swans – or indeed any other water birds with white plumage – are not tolerated in the breeding area either, and the resident cob will drive them off or attempt to drown them by holding their heads under water. Whenever the female or ‘pen’ leaves the nest to feed he will guard the eggs, but rarely incubates them.
The cygnets hatch out a little over a month later, and at first they are covered in a soft ash-grey down. This is soon replaced by the first brown feathers of the immature bird, and at this stage, with their drab plumage and short necks, cygnets do indeed resemble the ugly duckling of the fairytale. However, within six or seven months they will have developed the long neck and snowy plumage of the adult swan.
Swans are devoted parents, keeping a watchful eye on their brood, allowing them to ‘hitch a lift’ on their backs and diligently teaching them how to feed on the underwater plants which will form the main part of their diet. The family group remains together until the winter or following spring when the juveniles are evicted from the breeding territory.
Young birds may then join flocks of non-breeding swans, and often remain in these colonies for two or three years until they are old enough to breed. They will eventually form a pair bond and begin the search for a vacant nesting territory.