Mute Swan - elegant symbol of love


Mute Swan - elegant symbol of love

One of our most familiar waterbirds, the mute swan is famed for its grace and beauty. It is also considered to be a romantic of the bird world because partners form a perfect love heart with their necks.

The mute swan, with its long, curved neck and graceful glide, is a regular sight on our waterways and lakes. Mute swans feed on plants, particularly waterweed. They usually mate for life, but some will have numerous partners.

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.

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.

A female swan is known as a 'pen' and a male is a 'cob'. Both males and females are involved in parenting; the cob will guard the nest while the pen leaves to feed, but will not incubate the eggs. Both parents are devoted to the cygnets, which, with their downy, brown fluff and short necks, do indeed look like the 'ugly duckling' of the rhyme. They soon grow into their adult plumage, however.

Aristotle, Plato and Socrates all believed that swans singing prowess was heightened as death approaches, giving rise to the idea of the swan song, or the final performance.

During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. The owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of their birds. It was the duty of the Royal Swanmaster to organise the annual swan-upping, a tradition that survives to this day. 

The role of swan-upping was to round up unmarked cygnets and once the parentage of the cygnets had been established to the Swanmaster's satisfaction, the birds could be marked appropriately and returned to the wild. The ceremony exists these days in a largely symbolic form, although as an exercise it is useful in monitoring the condition and number of swans on the Thames. 

Further reading

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