Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Exhibition + Swan FAQs

With the blue skies and lovely sunshine, you could be forgiven for thinking spring had sprung today. Most Ducks have paired off now, and are sussing out potential nest sites along the riverbanks. My library photo exhibition is off to a flying start, with the weather on my side for a change, though some of the photos were warping in the sunshine ! Even some visitors were out and about and enjoying my display, It appears to be going down well with locals and visitors alike.

I thought I would accompany the exhibition with some Swan FAQs (frequently asked questions) , they can always be pulled up for future reference.

What do swans eat?
Swans living on fresh water will typically eat pondweed, stonewort and wigeon grass, as well as tadpoles and insects such as milfoil.

Swans living on salt water will typically eat sea arrow grass, salt marsh grass, eel grass, club rush and green algae, as well as insects and molluscs.

What can I feed swans?
If you want to feed swans then give them fresh brown bread (mould is poisonous to them), grain such as wheat or corn, and fresh greens such as lettuce or spinach. The food should be thrown onto the water so that they can swallow water with the food - feeding them on land is environmentally unsound and encourages the swans to leave the water whenever they see people which can bring them into harm from cars, dogs etc.

Can swans be over-fed?
No. Swans are not greedy creatures and will only eat what they need.

Is it normal for a swan to fold one of its legs up onto its back?
Yes. It's like us crossing our legs, plus the large surface area of the foot is used for body temperature control like an elephant's ear, absorbing heat from the sun when necessary.

At what age do swans start mating?
A juvenile swan normally lives as part of a flock until it is about 4 years old and deemed as being an adult. It then seeks out a mate, most commonly from the flock it's living in, and heads off with the mate to find their own mating territory. If another mating pair is nearby then problems can occur in the form of a territorial battle, the losers of which will have to move on in search of another "patch".

What time of year do swans breed?
The mute swan, which is the white swan most commonly seen in the British Isles, will normally mate at anytime from spring through to summer, with the cygnets being born anytime from May through to July.

How long do swans sit on their eggs?
After the nest has been built, which typically takes 2-3 weeks, the egg laying process begins with an egg being laid every 12-24 hours. Once all the eggs have been laid, which can take 2-3 weeks, they will all be incubated (ie sat on to start the growth process) at the same time with hatching usually 42 days (6 weeks) later.

Is it normal for a swan to sit on her eggs for longer than the normal 6 weeks?
Yes. If she is still sitting on the eggs then she must be able to hear movement within the eggs. It may be that she lost her first clutch of eggs to a predator and has laid a new set - this would explain the extended "sitting" period.

What predators do cygnets and swans have?
New born cygnets are mainly lost to crows, herons, magpies, turtles, pike and large perch. Both cygnets and full-grown swans are also the prey of foxes and mink.

The nesting female has disappeared/been killed - should anything be done?
No. The male will take over the nesting process and is quite capable of rearing the cygnets alone.

The nesting female's mate has disappeared/been killed - should anything be done?
No. She is quite capable of rearing the cygnets alone. People often worry that nesting females will starve to death when they have lost their mates as they are scared to leave their nests in search of food - this is incorrect. All female swans feast before nesting as they know food will be harder to come by once they are on the nest - it is normal for them to lose weight during the nesting period. That said, if a nesting female has lost her mate then she will be grateful for any food thrown to her within reach of the nest.

There's a swan's nest in a really vulnerable location - what can be done?
If the nest is vulnerable to interference from human factors, such as on a tow-path or the bank of a pond where people walk their dogs, then you should contact your local council and ask them to erect protective fencing around the nest. If the nest is vulnerable to natural events such as high tides & floodwater then it should be left alone so that the swans can learn from the experience - if a young couple lose a nest under these circumstances then they will learn not to build a nest so low down the next year. Sad as it is, they have to be allowed to learn from natural experiences which is one reason why it is illegal to interfere with a swan's nest in any way.

How many eggs usually hatch out and how many of the cygnets usually survive to adulthood?
Swans hatch up to 10 eggs at a time with the expectation of losing several of them. It is not uncommon for all the cygnets to be lost to predators, nor is it uncommon for most of them to survive - it all depends on the location and the natural protection afforded them. As the parents grow older they learn from the experience of previous years.

Do swans breed throughout their lives?
Yes, though the number of eggs laid each year tends to decrease with time.

How long do the cygnets stay with their parents?
Typically 6 months.

Is it normal for the parents to be chasing their cygnets once they're several months old?
Absolutely. Once the cygnets are old enough to look after themselves the parents cut the parental ties with them and chase them away, sometimes quite aggressively.

Where do cygnets go when they leave their parents?
They normally join the first flock of swans they encounter where they usually stay until they mature when about 4 years old.

Is it true that swans mate for life?
As a general rule this is true. If a mate is lost then the surviving mate will go through a grieving process like humans do, after which it will either stay where it is on its own, fly off and find a new stretch of water to live on (where a new mate may fly in and join it) or fly off and re-join a flock.

How long do swans normally live?
In the wild, with all the hazards they have to live with (vandals, pollution, dogs, mink, overhead cables, bridges, pylons, lead poisoning, fishing-tackle injuries etc), an average lifespan would be 12 years. In a protected environment this figure can reach 30 years.

Do swans moult?
Yes - typically in July or August each year, during which time they are unable to fly. Breeding pairs do not moult at the same time as they, and any offspring, would be too vulnerable to attack. They are unable to fly for approximately 6 weeks from the time that they lose their flight feathers to the time they have grown new ones.

Can swans take off from land?
Yes, but they need at least 30 yards to become airborne and the same again to reach a safe height to clear surrounding obstructions such as houses.

Do swans bite?
Not as such as they don't have teeth, but they can hiss and peck which can cause some discomfort if the skin gets pinched.

Is it true that a swan's wing can break your arm?
Yes, but only in exceptional cases. If a wing in full span and velocity were to hit a weak-boned person (such as a child or an elderly person) then it is theoretically possible. In reality it is almost unheard of and is never used as a form of attack as swans are a defensive bird. The only time they become aggressive is when they are protecting their nesting ground or cygnets when they will chase off intruders, be they other swans, geese or humans who get too close.

Is it true that all mute swans in the UK are owned by the Queen?
Yes, she has the prerogative right of ownership for all the mute swans in England and Wales.
What is Swan Upping?
Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on stretches of the River Thames in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire which takes place during the third week of July each year.

Is it true that harming a swan in any way is a criminal offence?
Yes, and prosecutions are becoming more commonplace now that conviction precedents have been set. It is also a criminal offence to interfere with nesting swans in any way - they cannot be moved if the location of the nest is inconvenient for whatever reason.

What are the biggest threats to swans?
In addition to the natural threats they face from foxes, mink & botulism, modern society has added several more such as pollution, vandalism, uncontrolled dogs, fishing-tackle and lead poisoning, as well as unmarked pylons, overhead cables & bridges.

How can you tell the male from the female?
Whilst juveniles this is only really possible by veterinary inspection. However, once they have matured (about 4 years old) there is normally a marked difference in size (males are bigger) and, in the case of mute swans, the black fleshy knob at the base of the beak is larger in the male.
Do swans sleep on land or water?
Both. They can sleep standing on one leg or whilst floating, usually with their heads tucked back under a wing.


Kay said...

I love seeing your swan photos and reading about their day to day activities on your website! We visited Nairn in 2002 from the States and saw wild swans up close for the first time. They are so beautiful! It was a highlight of my trip there. Please keep publishing your blog. It's a wonderful reminder of a wonderful vacation. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

We found a swans egg in the lake we dont know how long its been in their can it still be alive?

ray said...

We have seen today an adult swan with 16 young cygnets. Surely this must be a record. They were all very young and the same size

jayteescot1 said...

Well Ray, sure sounds like a record to me, but am surprised you saw only one adult with them.

I believe they can lay up to 13 eggs, so 16 sounds unbelievable for one Swan !

Anonymous said...

We are on the coventry canal in our narrowboat. Just outside Hartshill, where we moored for the night, a pair of adult swans with twelve big healthy and squeaky adolescent cygnets in tow came a-begging at the cratch for bread! And they were all around the following morning. I've not seen twelve before.

Anonymous said...

will cygnets climb on a parent's back

jayteescot1 said...

For the first couple of weeks after hatching the cygnets clamber onto the pens back, from the tail end. After about 3 weeks the pen stops carting them around.