Frequently Asked Questions

The mute swan is a very large white water bird. It has a long S-shaped neck and an orange bill with a black base and a black knob. It flies with its neck extended and regular, slow wingbeats. The population in the UK has increased recently, perhaps due to better protection of this species. The problem of lead poisoning on lowland rivers has also largely been solved by a ban on the sale of lead fishing weights, led by Swan Lifeline. Some birds stay in their territories all year, while others move short distances and form winter flocks. In cold weather, some birds arrive from Europe into eastern England.

Mute swans communicate with the help of visual and vocal methods. Vocal communications of this species include whistles, bark-like sounds, hissing, and so on. However, they are mostly silent and are considered to be much quieter than other swans. They also do not communicate while flying. All this goes towards them being called 'mute' swans.

Mute swans have a wingspan of between 200 to 240 cm (79 to 94 in), which means they can fly at a maximum speed of 80.4 to 88.5 km/h (50 to 55 mph) during flight.

They can run up to 48 km/h (30mph) over the water's surface beating their wings until they take off.

On water, mute swans need at least 25 to 30 m (82 to 98 ft) to take off successfully, although they will stay at between 2 to 3 m (6 to 12 feet) above ground for at least another 15 m (50 ft) to gain any height to avoid traffic and houses.

On roads - especially wet ones after rain - swans may land believing it's a river, then take off and land again. Because they won't gain much height, they are in danger of hitting cars and lorries and injuring their wings, heads and bodies, as well as injuries sustained then landing on a hard surface.

In the wild, they can live until 19 years of age. In captivity, they have a longer lifespan and are known to live for 30-40 years.

The male and the female birds, the cob and pen, usually attempt to mate for life, although it is not true to say that if one of the birds were to die the other would necessarily pine away. It is possible for an adult bird to find an alternative mate. 

The female (pen) lays up to seven eggs between late April and early May. Both sexes incubate the eggs, which hatch after 35-41 days. The young birds, or cygnets, sometimes ride on their parents' backs and remain with the adult birds for four or five months. Cygnets are generally dingy brown above and whitish below. Occasionally cygnets may be all white and are known as 'Polish swans'. The young of some pairs are driven off the breeding territory as soon as their plumage is predominantly white (during late autumn or winter). Other broods often accompany their parents to the wintering area, and usually join a large flock in which they remain when the parents return to their breeding territory. Young birds will not generally breed for the first two years of adult life.

Swans often mistake roads for a river, especially if it's been raining but they can also mis-time a landing or crash land where they aren't supposed to be - like a back garden. If you find a swan on a road or somewhere not near its natural habitat, please call us, so we can collect it, check it's healthy and release it or take it to our treatment centre, if needed.

Swans eat aquatic vegetation, which their long necks equip them to take from the riverbed. They take the molluscs which cling to the vegetation and also eat small fish, frogs and worms. They will graze big grassy fields, and can survive quite successfully in a field of short-cropped grass. Flocks of Bewick's and whooper swans can be seen in potato fields during the winter, feeding on the potatoes left after harvesting. 

Swans normally find enough food in the wild without supplementary feeding. It is only in freezing weather that extra food can be helpful. Many people like feeding bread to swans, but when it's fed in large quantities, it can cause dietary problems, and is no substitute for the proper diet that the birds themselves will seek out. Grain, such as wheat, and vegetable matter, especially frozen peas or sweetcorn, lettuce and potatoes, can be fed to swans. Food should be thrown into the water to avoid encouraging the birds onto the bank.

Play the song - or call - of the mute swan below.

The Call of the Mute Swan (Cygnus Olor)
Recorded: Irvine Harbour, Ayrshire, UK
© Fraser Simpson

Adult mute swans are typically between 1.2 to 1.7 m (47 to 67 in) long, with a 200 to 240 cm (79 to 94 in) wingspan. A male adult mute swan weighs between 11 - 12 kg (24 to 27 lb) and an adult female weighs about 8.5 - 9 kg (19 to 20 lbs).

Cygnus falconeri - the giant swan - is an extinct, very large swan known from Middle Pleistocene-aged deposits from Malta and Sicily. Its dimensions are described as exceeding those of the living mute swan by one-third, which would give a bill-to-tail length of about 1.9 to 2.1 m (75 to 83 in). It has been estimated to weigh about 16 kg (35 lb) and had a wingspan of about 3 m (9.8 ft).

Mute Swan Adult male11 - 12 kg (24 to 27 lb)1.2 to 1.7 m (47 to 67 in)200 to 240 cm (79 to 94 in)
Mute Swan: Adult female8.5 - 9 kg (19 to 20 lbs)1.2 to 1.7 m (47 to 67 in)200 to 240 cm (79 to 94 in)
Cygnus falconeri (extinct)16 kg (35 lb)1.9 to 2.1 m (75 to 83 in)3 m (9.8 ft)

Swan nests can range from 1-2m radius (3-6 feet). The size will depend on where the nest is and what materials are available close by the build the nest. The nest itself is a huge mound of material, normally dried grasses and assorted vegetation, sticks and rushes, usually constructed close to the water's edge. The nest is built by the female, while the male supplies the materials. It's centre will have a depression for the pen to lay the eggs then be able to sit on them during the 35 days of incubation.

Swans moult each summer. When moulting they are unable to fly for about 6 weeks while their new feathers grow back. By moulting, a swan will replace all 25,000 of their feathers. Collectively, their Feathers are called Plumage.

Breeding pairs do not moult at the same time as he cob and pen - and their cygnets - would be too vulnerable to predators.

When they moult, blood still flows to their new quills for about 2 weeks, so if a quill is broken or damaged, you might see a lot of blood on its wing, which should stop after about 4 hours. If you see blood on a swan's wing, please contact us, as it may be injured and we would prefer to check it out rather than leave it.

6,000 year old mute swan subfossils have been found in post-glacial peat beds of East Anglia. Fossils have been recorded in Ireland, Portugal, Italy and France, dating back to 13,000 BP.

Fossils of swan ancestors more distantly allied to the mute swan have been found in four U.S. states: California, Arizona, Idaho and Oregon. The timeline runs from the Miocene to the late Pleistocene eras, or 10,000 BP. The latest find was in Anza Borrego Desert, a state park in California. Fossils from the Pleistocene include Cygnus paloregonus from Fossil Lake, Oregon, Froman's Ferry, Idaho, and Arizona, referred to by Howard in The Waterfowl of the World as "probably the mute type swan".

The mute swan is the national bird of Denmark.

With thanks to the RSPB and Kidadl