Swan Species - Tribe Cygnini
Northern Hemisphere Swans
Southern Hemisphere Swans
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) and Polish Mute Swan (Cygnus immutabilis)
This is the most common swan seen on our urban lakes and in Europe.
A family of Mute Swans
Description: The adults are completely white, but the head can be stained rusty from feeding in acidic waters. The bill is orange-red with black nail, cutting edge, bill-base, nostril, and fleshly frontal knob. Legs and feet black, but remain pink on ‘Polish’ birds. The Juvenile: bill lacks frontal knob, pinkish-grey, with black areas as adult becoming pinker during first winter and attaining adult shape and colour by second winter. Legs and feet grey or pinkish-grey on the Polish swan.
Length 125-155 cm (50-61in).
The males are usually larger than females.
In Flight: The typical swan shape, most easily distinguished in flight by clearly audible throbbing drone ‘waou, waou waou’ produced by the wing-beats. Hardly vocal in flight, apart from occasional grunts. Pointed tail projects beyond prominent black feet, in northern species feet reach tail-tip, but if a bird is close enough to see this feature bill is also visible.
Voice: as the name implies, least vocal of swans, but by no means mute. Utters short grunts and hisses, also during breeding period short, loud snorts, but lacks honking flight calls of other species.
Habits: We find this swan on most of our lakes, rivers and ponds, both in open country and about towns and cities. They are generally tame, but wild birds (in Asia) are wary and unapproachable. It has long been domesticated particularly in Britain, where its history dates back to the twelfth century; also domesticated by the Greeks and Romans. Normally strongly territorial in the breeding season, driving most other wildfowl from the vicinity of nest, but in some places large numbers breed in close proximity to each other, as at Abbotsbury, Dorset, in England.
The nest is a huge mound of vegetation, close to the waterside, often among tall fringe vegetation. Breeding commences in April, but introduced populations in South Africa breed in September and October. Cygnets, when small, are often carried on the back of the female. Male will be aggressive, swimming in jerking movements towards intruder, with inner wing feathers arched and neck resting back on shoulders. After breeding they form large concentrations on selected waters for post-breeding molting.
Feeds primarily by reaching below surface with long neck, frequently upending, but will also dabble and graze on the land like other swans of the Northern hemisphere.
Habitat: Favours lowland freshwater lakes, pools, and reservoirs, gravel-pits, rivers and park-lakes. Also on estuaries, coastal brackish lagoons and even in sheltered coastal bays.
Population: European population increasing with local introductions continuing, though in parts of Britain species has shown serious decline recently, mainly caused by poisoning from swallowing anglers’ discarded lead weights.
Polish Mute Swan
The polish mute swan is a ‘pure white’ version of a mute swan. The legs and feet are a pinkish-grey colour instead of the usual black colour.
A pigment deficiency of a gene in the sex chromosomes is what causes the whiteness.
When a female mute swan inherits only one melanin-deficient chromosome she will be a polish swan, whereas the male of the same parents will be normal. If the next generation is produced by two of their offspring the brood will contain numbers of both polish and normal cygnets of either sex.
Polish swans were given their name when they were imported from the Polish coast on the Baltic sea into London around about 1800. Mistakenly thought to be a new species they were given the name ‘Cygnus immutabilis’ (changeless swan).
Polish swans are not a different species of swan, because they are mute swans.
Black Swan (Cygnus atratus or Chenopis atratus)
Found on lakes in Australia and New Zealand.
A Black Swan and Cygnets
A Black Swan Cygnet
Description: The adults are completely sooty-black with slightly greyer fringes to body and wing feathers, most noticeable on upper-parts. Inner wing-coverts and tertials with curled edges. Bill and bare skin to eye orange-red to deep waxy-red, with white sub-terminal band and pinker nail. Legs and feet black, iris white or reddish. Juvenile: Bill dark grey with paler nail, attains adult bill colour after a few months. Greyer than adult with rather lighter under-parts and broader. Paler feather fringes than adult, but dusky-tipped. Resembles adult after first moult, but some retain dusky tips to some primaries until third year.
Length 115-140 cm (45-55in).
The males are usually larger and longer necked than females.
In-Flight: Typical swan shape. White flight feathers contrast strikingly with otherwise black plumage, making it unmistakable in flight: juveniles show dusky tips to white flight feathers.
Voice: a high pitched bugling, rather musical and not very far carrying, but may be uttered both on water and in flight. Other, more conversational notes may be heard from birds on the water.
Habits: Highly gregarious concentrations reaching tens of thousands on some favoured lakes in southern Australia. Breeding season varies somewhat according to local conditions. The breeding dates are February-May in northeast Queensland and June-August in Western Australia.
Nest are located close to the waterside in fringe vegetation or on small islands typically in colonies as dense as to be just outside pecking distance of a neighbour. After breeding there is a considerable dispersal of the species and they can be found in all parts of Australia, but these movements are not clearly understood, they seem to be connected with the search for new breeding areas following the rains.
They feed primarily by submerging head and neck, but some-times up-ends and dabble; also grazes on waterside pastures.
Habitat: Breeds by large, relatively shallow lakes, of both fresh and brackish water. Away from breeding areas, may be found on flooded agricultural land, coastal lagoons and estuaries and even in sheltered coastal bays.
Population: Protected both by law and by sentiment in Australia although because of large concentrations and resulting crop damage, a short hunting season has been introduced in Victoria and Tasmania.
Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melanocoryphus or Sthenelides melanocorypha)
A native of southern South America and perhaps the most attractive of all swans.
A pair of Black-necked Swans
A Black-necked Swan and Cygnets
Description: A typical swan but with a velvet black head and neck and a large red knob at base of bill. A narrow white line extending from forehead to a little behind the eye, iris is dark brown. Remainder of the plumage is white. Bill is blue-grey, legs and feet pink. Juvenile: Similar, but the head and neck feathers are duller brownish grey. Attains adult plumage by end of first year, but some dusky tipped primaries retained until third year.
Length 102-124 cm (40-49in).
Males are much larger and longer-necked than females.
In Flight: Typical swan shape, although a little stockier than other species. It has a white plumage and a striking black head and neck.
Voice: The wings produce a whistling sound in flight. The typical call is a weak, wheezy whistle although commonly uttered both on water and in flights, it is not far-carrying.
Habits: A very strong territorial and aggressive swan in the breeding season. The season varies according to the latitude: in central Chile and Argentina it is in July and August. In the Falkland Islands they breed from early August to mid September.
Nests are located in dense fringe vegetation by lakesides, but may be on small islands or even partially floating. Cygnets are carried on back of adults until quite large. They rarely come onto land, its relatively short legs and log body giving it a very awkward gait. Take-off and landing executed with more difficulty than other swans, again possibly owing to relatively short legs.
Feeds chiefly in shallow water by dabbling and submerging head.
Habitat: Freshwater marshes and shallow lakes, coastal lagoons, estuaries and sheltered coastal bays.
Population: Seem to be under little threat although drainage of lowland wetlands for cattle-farming has no doubt affected its population. Reported to be increasing in Chile following former decrease through persecution.
Breeds from Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands, north to Central Chile, southern Paraguay and south-eastern Brazil.
Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus or Olor cygnus or Cygnus musicus)
Europe and Asia. This is a Palaearctic cousin of the Trumpeter Swan.
A Whooper Swan
Description: Sexes are similar. All white, although head may be stained from feeding. The adults have a striking black-and-yellow bill pattern. Bill bright pale yellow, with black cutting edges. Legs and feet black. Eye iris dark brown, occasionally bluish. It has a long body and neck and has a more angular shape, exaggerated by longer bill which gives it a ‘Roman nose’ shape to front of head. Juvenile: Almost completely greyish-brown, a little darker on head and neck and whiter on under-parts. Becomes paler during latter part of first year summer, attaining full adult coloration before second winter.
Length 140-165cm (55-65 in).
Males usually larger than females.
In Flight: Typical swan shape. Distinguished by two-toned bill and rounded tail, with feet reaching tail-tip. Lone individuals difficult to identify but, if species flying together, Whooper is clearly larger than the Bewick with a longer neck and body, heavier head and bill, and has slightly slower wing-beats. It is less agile to take-off and land coming on to water at a shallower angle with more skating over surface. Taking off with more pattering. Wing-beats are silent, or with a quiet swishing at close range.
Voice: Has a variety of honking and trumpeting calls, deeper and stronger than those of the Bewick’s. Flight call is deep and resonant ‘hoop-hoop’ with a second syllable higher. Flying birds are very vocal.
Habits: Highly sociable outside breeding season. It arrives on the breeding ground in second half of May, taking up well-spaced territories. It likes to nest close to water at the edge of a pool or on small islands. Moults after breeding in mid-summer, finally leaving the grounds in small flocks or family parties during latter half of September.
Feeds primarily by grazing in arable fields and sprouting winter cereals, walking with greater ease than Mute swan. Also like to feed on water. Shy and wary, unlike Mute swan, with which it may sometimes associate.
Habitat: Breeds by a variety of open shallow water, from steppe lakes to pools in the northern Taiga, also locally by coastal inlets, estuaries and rivers, but generally avoiding Tundra zone which is inhabited by Bewick’s Swan. Winters in lowland open farmland and occasionally, on passage, in sheltered coastal bays and inlets.
Population: Enormous breeding range makes estimates difficult, but local decreases have occurred through drainage of wetlands and hunting.
Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator or Olor buccinator)
Western North America. The largest and rarest of the swans, the American counterpart of the Whooper Swan.
Description: Adult is completely white, although head and neck will be stained from feeding in ferrous waters. The bill and facial skin are black, a narrow red line cutting in at the edge of the mandibles. The iris is dark brown. Legs and feet black. Juvenile: Overall greyish-brown, slightly darker on crown and hind-neck; under-parts paler grey. Adult plumage attained by second winter, birds being paler during first summer but with some greyish-brown on head, neck and wings.
Length 150-180cm (60-72 in).
Sexes are similar but males can be larger.
In Flight: A very large, white swan with all-black bill. Lone individuals usually difficult to distinguish from Whistling swan in flight. The Trumpeter is larger, with longer neck and body and different voice.
Voice: A deeper call and more resonant than that of the Whistling swan, a single or double bugling ‘ko-hoh’, likened to that of a crane.
Habits: A solitary breeder, needing a large territory. Nests are situated close to the water, either on the shore or on small islands and even on muskrat houses and beaver lodges. Egg-laying commences in late April, a month later in Alaska.
Feeds chiefly while swimming, submerging head and neck below surface and up-ending in deeper water.
Habitat: Riverine wetlands, by lakes, ponds and marshes, even in open wooded regions and prairies and, in winter, on tidal estuaries.
Population: The Alaskan population averages larger. Formerly widespread across northern North American from Alaska to Central Canada. South to Idaho and Illinois.
Formerly abundant, but settlers in North America killed them in large numbers for food and feathers. Transportation of birds to other areas has resulted in a spectacular comeback. Totally protected throughout its range.
Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii or Olor columbianus bewickii)
Europe and Asia. Alternative name: Tundra Swan (with Whistling Swan).
Description: Smaller than other northern swans, with a shorter body and shorter bill than the closely related Whistling swan. Typically has yellow only at the sides of the bill, feet and legs black, eye dark brown. Juvenile: Overall greyish-brown. Bill is pink, whiter towards the base, tip and cutting edge black. Retains this plumage well into first spring and although attains adult coloration by second winter, most birds can still be aged by presence of greyish brown on head and neck until at least into first half of second winter. Bewick’s swan is now considered to be merely a race of Whistling Swan. No other races now recognized, although eastern population of Bewick’s (Lena delta eastwards) formerly separated as race jankowskii averages rather larger and has longer deeper bill which tends to show more extensive black than on western birds.
Length 115-140cm (45-55 in).
Males usually large than females.
In Flight: Usual swan shape, but is smaller and stockier, with shorter neck and body. It has a rather quick wing action. More agile at take-off and landing than Whooper dropping on to water at steeper angle and rising with little foot-pattering.
Voice: Calls are a higher pitch and more yelping. Usual flight call faster and more yelping, but softer and less bugling than Whooper, a low ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’.
Habits: Highly gregarious outside breeding season. Arrives on breeding ground from mid May to early June, selecting territory in coastal tundra of Arctic Siberia. Nest sites on dry hummocks in open tundra, by rivers and estuaries, often in well-scattered colonies. Large flocks form on winter grounds, feeding in shallow water or by grazing in low-lying fields. They are very noisy in winter, flock keeping up constant low babbling when on water and indulging in greeting displays.
Habitat: This swan likes to breed in low-lying open grassy or swampy tundra with scattered pools, lakes and rivers.
Population: Despite being protected throughout nearly the whole of its range, small numbers are regularly shot. Western populations regularly counted European winter quarters, estimated at 16,000 birds but numbers vary according to breeding success.
Jankowski's or Eastern Bewick's Swan (Cygnus columbianus jankowskii or Olor columbianus jankowskii)
Jankowski's swans are lookalikes for Bewick's swans, except that they are slightly larger with fuller bills and slightly longer necks.
Whereas Bewick's swans breed over northern Russia between the Kanin Delta and the Lena Delta of Siberia, Jankowski's swans breed between the Lena Delta and the Kolyma Delta further east. Similarly, whereas the Bewick's swans winter in Britain and northern Europe, Jankowski's swans winter in Japan, China and Korea - hence the name Eastern Bewick's.
Whistling or Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus or Olor columbianus)
North American counterpart of Bewick’s Swan with which it is now generally regarded as non-specific under the name Tundra Swan.
A pair of Whistling Swans
A family of Whistling Swans
Description: The adults are small, shorter bodied and shorter necked than Trumpeter swan, and a rather shorter bill. The adults are completely white, although head and neck sometimes stained rusty. The bill and facial skin is all black with indistinct reddish gape and usually a small yellow spot or patch at base of bill. Juvenile: Overall greyish-brown a little darker on head and neck and lighter on under-parts flight feathers and tail. Bill pink, paler towards the base, with blackish cutting edge, nostril and tip, becoming blacker by first spring, legs and feet fleshy-grey. Becomes paler and whiter during latter part of first winter and first spring.
Length 120-150cm (48-58in).
Males usually larger than females.
In Flight: Like other northern swans, a V formation. Black bill shared only by Trumpeter swan, but flight distinctions tricky.
Voice: Migrating flocks are very vocal with noisy greeting ceremonies as individuals join and leave the flock. Does not whistle, despite its name. Has a variety of honking and clanging calls, all higher in pitch than the Trumpeter, recalling Canada Goose, rather than bugling of cranes. A soft musical, ‘wow-wow-wow’.
Habits: Highly sociable in the breeding season. They arrive in the latter half of May to take up territory in coastal Tundra regions. Nest site close to water by banks of pools and lakes, sometimes on small islands. Migrating birds follow specific routes to and from breeding grounds using certain stop-over point en route; at Niagara Falls they sometimes become caught up in strong currents and are swept to their deaths over the falls before they can rise from the water. Their feeding action is quicker than the Trumpeter and more noisy and excitable in small parties.
Habitat: In winter they feed primarily in shallow water, but in recent years in some districts has taken to grazing in crop fields and winter cereals. Breeds in coastal tundra of Arctic North America, from coastal Alaska and islands eastwards over northern Canada to Baffin Island.
Population: Always more abundant than Trumpeter swan, population estimated at around 146,000 in 1972. Numbers vary according to breeding success. Some 60% of the population breed in Alaska, with greatest density around coastal western area; wintering numbers almost equally divided between the two major winter zones. Fairly well protected, although a limited hunting season has been permitted in certain states. Flightless birds are rounded up and are used for food and their down.
Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba)
Southern South America to Cape Horn and a frequent visitor to the Falkland Islands.
A Coscoroba Swan
A Coscoroba Cygnet
Description: Almost a goose-like swan, adult having a waxy-red duck bill, pink legs and small black wing-tips. Completely white except for black terminal third of outer six primaries. Unmistakable, the only white swan in the Neo-tropics, smaller and shorter-necked than other swans, adult at rest appears totally white with a brilliant waxy-red bill which is feathered to the base and lacks any basal knob; legs and feet bright pink. Iris yellowish to reddish orange. Juvenile: duller than adult, whitish but has patches of greyish-brown on crown, back and wings and blue-grey bill and legs. Becomes whiter during first winter, but some patches remain until adult plumage fully attained by second autumn.
Length 90-115cm (34-45in).
Males usually large than females.
In Flight: Swan-like shape and small black wing-tips are obvious in flight and present a unique combination in South America.
Voice: Has a loud trumpet-like call ‘cos-cor-oo’ the first syllable being longer and higher in pitch. Female’s calls are higher in pitch than those of the male. The species’ name is derived from the call.
Habits: A sociable bird in groups of about 100. Isolated pairs, rarely small loose colonies, build their bulky nest by tall fringe vegetation or on small islands by shallow water. Unlike swans of genus Cygnus, does not carry young on back. Post-breeding moulting flocks gather on favoured waters, where numbers may perhaps reach a couple of hundred individuals. It performs little understood migrations, confused by varying breeding seasons, dispersing northwards after the moult. It feeds by dabbling or wading in the shallows, sometimes by grazing on waterside pasture, walking easily with its relatively long legs. Its longer legs no doubt help it take to the air with greater ease than other swans, as it does not patter during take-off. Generally shy and wary.
Habitat: Fresh water lakes and lagoons, with fringe vegetation.
Population: Throughout its range this is quite a local bird. Concern had been expressed by the Chilean government which estimated that fewer than 1,000 remained in Chile in the late 1970s, and that these were confined to the extreme south of the country. As Chile is considered to be the main headquarters for this unique species, clearly there is urgent need for overall censuring throughout the bird’s range.
Giant / Maltese Swan (Cygnus falconeri or Palaeocycnus)
The giant extinct Maltese Swan was a land-feeding bird, well adapted for walking but with little or no ability to fly. By comparison of its fossilised bones with those of living swans it probably resembled a scaled-up Whooper Swan weighing about 16 kg and with a wing span of about 3 m.
Pouwa Swan (Cygnus sumnerensis or Cygnus chathamnensis)
The largest specimens of extinct birds are said to have been found mostly on islands. Thus, not surprisingly a giant swan fossil was discovered 500 miles east of New Zealand on the Chatham Islands. This great swan fossil, first classified as Cygnus sumnerensis, survived into the sixteenth or seventeenth century. A more complete fossil of this swan, possibly the ancestor of Australia's present-day Black Swan, has been reclassified as Cygnus chathamnensis to designate more precisely the islands where the fossil was found.
It is believed that the discovery of the bones on the islands was made by accident when E.O. Forbes, the discoverer, first heard the New Zealand Maori speak of the "Pouwa" bird and how they drove them from the Te Whanga lagoon.
Discovered in North America near Fossil Lake, Oregon, in association with flamingo fossils, this species has tentatively been named Cygnus paleoregonus.
Pere David's Swan (Cygnus davidii)
First observed in 19th century China, and then again in 20th century England, it is described as "a smallish white swan with red bill and orange-yellow feet" (Fuller). Its more curious feature is the feathering between eye and bill which leads some experts to suggest that this strange little creature could be an abnormally-coloured Bewick's swan.