Swan Song: 5 fun facts about these majestic creatures

With tales like the Ugly Duckling, the Trumpet of the Swan, or even the movie Black Swan, many of us grow up hearing stories of swans representing a character that doesn’t quite fit in, but eventually finds its home. In some ways, this mirrors the story of the mute swan in North America. However, more like Natalie Portman’s Black Swan than any other, the story of the mute swan is not a positive one for North American wildlife.

When you picture a swan in North America, chances are you’re picturing a white swan with an orange bill and a black mask around its eyes — the mute swan. But this creature isn’t native to North America. In fact, the mute swan is an invasive species brought over from Europe that poses a threat to native waterfowl and other wildlife as it encroaches on their habitat and eats their food.

A mute swan shelters its young
A mute swan shelters its young. Credit: Raymond MacDonald

Trumpeter and tundra swans are the swan species that are native to North America, and the species that have historically been most in need of protection. Trumpeter swans live up to their name with their loud honking calls, and look similar to mute swans but with entirely black bills and masks. In the 20th century, they were pushed to the brink of extinction as American settlers pushed westward and encroached on their habitat. However, their populations have rebounded in protected areas and they may be considered a great conservation success story.

A trumpeter swan flaps its wings
A trumpeter swan flaps its wings. Credit: Karen E. Brown

Tundra swans nest in the Arctic and migrate thousands of miles in the winter to warmer southern areas. They can travel in groups of up to 100 swans or more as they migrate! They are highly adaptable – as they have lost some of their southern wetland habitat and food sources, they’ve adapted to eat agricultural waste instead.

Did you know? A group of swans is called a bevy! Test your knowledge of collective nouns for animals with this quiz:

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Here are a few more facts you might not have known about swans:

1. They are huge!

Trumpeter swans are the largest native waterfowl and the heaviest flying birds in North America. Their wingspans can reach up to 10 feet!

2. They mate for life

Around the age of 2-4 years, swans choose a mate which they will generally remain with for the rest of their lives. In some cases, however, they will choose a new mate if their partner dies or if they are unsuccessful at breeding.

3. They are very territorial during mating season

Swans have a reputation as aggressive and territorial, and there’s no time of year they exemplify this more than during their breeding season. Swans – especially mute swans – will chase away perceived threats to their nests by hissing, flapping their wings, and swimming directly at their rivals. 

Did you know? Swans are relatives of geese and ducks! Learn more about geese in our Untitled Goose Blog:

Learn More!

4. They have their own constellation

Cygnus – the latin word for “swan” – is a brightly visible constellation also known as the northern cross. In Greek mythology, the constellation represents Orpheus, who was transformed into a swan after death – next to his lyre, in the constellation Lyra.

5. They live for a long time

In the wild, swans can live to be over 20 years old! 

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Published: October 25, 2019