Aggressive swans tarnish whiter-than-white image
PUBLISHED: 15:13 10 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:20 20 February 2013
Mute swans symbolise beauty, tranquillity and faithfulness, but there's another side to these stately birds Words and Pictures by Steve & Ann Toon
Where to see Mute Swans
Mute swans can be found on rivers, stream, ponds, lakes, and estuaries throughout the north east, both in rural and urban areas. The following are reliable sites that also offer a range of other wildlife to enjoy in May:
Tweed Dock at Tweedmouth
Ladyburn Lake, Druridge Bay Country Park, south of Amble
Cresswell Ponds nature reserve, near Cresswell, at the south end of Druridge Bay
Bolam Lake, near Belsay
Big Waters, on the outskirts of Brunswick Village, near Newcastle Airport
Killingworth Lake, Killingworth
Hardwick Park, west of Sedgeflield
Joe's Pond, Rainton Meadows, south west of Houghton-le-Spring
Picture the scene: a sunny late spring afternoon at Bolam Lake, and two young boys are splashing around in a little inflatable dinghy.
Near the waters edge a bevy of mute swans float serenely along, occasionally dipping their graceful necks beneath the surface to pluck a few shreds of vegetation from the shallow lake bed.
Then one bird decides to depart. Its a large male, properly known as a cob, and must weigh well in excess of 10kg. The jumbo jet of the avian world with a take-off to match, his wings smack the water while his legs paddle furiously.
The swan churns up a trail of froth in its wake and suddenly is heading straight for the dinghy.
The two boys stare, transfixed, as the massive bird bears down on them, gathering speed but no altitude. At the last moment the swan lifts off, huge webbed feet barely clearing the rubber boat, now bobbing empty.
Hearts thumping, hugely embarrassed, and very wet, the two boys drag the dinghy to shore, where their families are creased up with laughter.
More years than I care to mention later, Im just about over the indignity. But my attitude towards mute swans remains ambivalent.
Its easy to romanticise swans for their snowy white beauty and the sense of timeless tranquillity they bring to the landscape, gliding effortlessly and elegantly on the water. But mute swans have a darker side, an aggressive streak that can spell trouble for other swans, waterfowl, and even people that get in their way.
It may or may not be an old wives tale that a swan can break a mans arm, but we did once meet a swan researcher whod suffered three broken ribs. Breeding swans are quite capable of killing geese, ducks, or even other swans that intrude on their territory, and there have even been rare cases of swans killing small dogs, though dog bites swan is a much commoner event.
In North America, where mute swans were introduced as ornamental birds, they are now regarded as undesirable aliens, their population controlled to reduce the negative impact they have on other waterfowl and their vulnerable wetland habitats.
In fact the popular association of mute swans with peace and tranquillity is only one of numerous popular fallacies about the birds. Even their name is misleading, as they actually have a repertoire of distinctly unappealing hisses, whistles and snorts. They do not suddenly discover a beautiful voice just before death. The swan song that Socrates believed in is a myth. Nor are they the faithful and true mates for life as many people think.
Contrary to popular belief, swans are no more faithful to their partners than humans. If no outside factors affect their relationship they will stay together for life, but they soon get over a bereavement or desertion by a partner and find a new mate, suggests Barrie Mortimer, chairman of the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust.
Their stately, snow white appearance attracts us to them, but that stateliness is soon forgotten when they fight amongst themselves or protect eggs or young from intruders, he adds.
Breeding seems to be their sole purpose in life as, when they start thinking about a new family, they will chase away the previous years family. I have seen cobs deliberately trying to drown their own offspring from September onwards in order to clear the decks for the next brood of youngsters, possibly not even due until the following May.
Yet for all this, mute swans remain one of our most beautiful native birds, and the sight this month of the first fluffy grey cygnets chugging along in the wake of their parents will be a true sign summers arriving at last.
Its a sight we take for granted these days, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the mute swan population nosedived, poisoned by the lead shot used by anglers to weight their lines. Thankfully, changes in angling techniques and a government ban on the supply of lead weights in 1987 helped reverse the decline, and today the national population has doubled to in excess of 30,000 birds.
Mute swans are a common sight on waterways in the lower lying parts of the north east, including many urban areas.
Indeed, on the river Tweed we could, until recently, boast one of the largest concentrations in the country, second only to Abbotsbury in Dorset, where swans are kept in semi-domesticity. Swans were attracted to the Tweed by the discharge of spent barley from Simpsons Malt, and at its peak the population was well over 700 birds.
The Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust was set up in 1992 after a chemical spillage contaminated many of the Tweeds birds, and in the intervening years has rescued, treated and released more than 1,000 swans, as well as numerous other sick and injured animals from all over the north east and Scotland.
The mute swan population on the Tweed dropped rapidly after a European Union directive put an end to the discharge of barley, and today the river probably holds no more swans than the natural food supply can support.
The swans no longer gather in any one place on a regular basis until June or July, when the moult takes place and considerable numbers gather in and around Tweed Dock in Tweedmouth, says Barrie Mortimer.
The last round-up of swans during the moult took place in July 2005, when only 200 or so birds were hanging round the estuary and up to the A1 road bridge near East Ord.
This month most of the Tweeds birds, in common with other mute swans throughout the region, will have dispersed to nesting sites on lakes, ponds and streams.
Swans are creatures of habit, and will often breed in the same place year after year. In early spring established pairs engage in elaborate courtship rituals and begin building sturdy nests of sticks and vegetation.
Five to eight greyish-green eggs are laid in April, and the cygnets hatch about five weeks later. Their fluffy, pale grey down is soon replaced by brown feathers - the ugly duckling stage - and it isnt until some six or seven months later that they will have the pure white plumage of the adult swan.
Swans are good parents, at least while the cygnets are small, and keep a watchful eye on their brood, teaching them to feed on underwater plants, the mainstay of their diet, and sometimes carrying the young birds on their back.
When young swans are eventually turfed out of the breeding territory they will often join flocks of other non-breeding swans, until they are mature enough to seek out a mate and breed at the age of two or three.
Now is the perfect time to enjoy these stately birds as they cruise the waterways with their young families. But its also the time protective parents can be at their most aggressive. Its easy to forget these are wild animals, so make sure you keep out of necks reach!