White swans are icons of grace, beauty and elegance. First used in the United States to sit in ponds of the elite, they have grown in numbers over the years, although face environmental changes that challenge their population in more recent years. Did you know that white swans are not all the same species?
White swans come in various species. The swan you see in Tennessee might be different than that of the one in the northern region of the United States. Distinct differences define each species.
The habitat of swans depends on the species. While of varying species, they do tend to search for the same elements when it comes to breeding, habitat and eating habits.
The Trumpeter Swan
The trumpeter swan is known for beautiful white coloring on the body and head. The black bills and legs stand out against the white, showing off the red that lies along the upper and lower mandible. Longer necks allow them to sound off with a trumpeting noise such as a tenor horn, with just a touch of squeal added in.
Largely vegetarian, the trumpeter thrusts its head beneath the surface in search of plant leaves and stems. They can rip out hidden roots and shoots that may be hidden on the bottom of the lake. Their dining habits include the sago pondweed, water milfoil and duck potato. Babies or cygnets, feast on water beetles until they are five weeks of age. Snacking on smaller crustaceans, the cygnets eat meats until the five week age mark then switch to a complete vegetarian diet instead.
Illegal shooting, lead poisoning, collisions with power lines, hunting and loss of habitat have reduced the numbers in the population of the trumpeter swan in many areas. To save the species, the swan has been moved to areas in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ontario, which are areas they used to reside in. There are plans to place some in the Chesapeake Bay area as well, to establish the flocks along the east coast too.
The swans that exist in the Pacific coast region will migrate southward during the colder weather. The Rocky Mountain trumpeters flock together in two different groups. One group lives around the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, where the Canadian flock joins them in winter.
Summer weather finds the swans searching for food in swamps, shallow lakes and forested areas. The human visitors along with the noise they bring annoy the flocks, so most will vacate the area until the human intruders leave the premises. During the winter, they need to follow the food sources and can’t dine through icy waters. Swans at this time of year are seen flying to areas that house sheltered coastal regions and estuaries where they can spend time relaxing.
Trumpeters mate for life. A courtship dance begins during the swan’s third or fourth year. The winter months are the best time for them to “hook up” with a mate, to begin the nest building procedure for the following spring. Graceful, synchronized swimming and blending of necks starts off the mating ritual. Some bubbles may be blown into the water or singing in tandem is possible. Once the two swans come together, their new home is located by the couple. Early claims mean plenty of good vegetation and privacy in the perfect spot before anyone else grabs the site. Plenty of room is needed for the early morning and late night flights and landings, so it takes time to locate the perfect place. If an optimal spot is found, nest building begins and a future family is thought of at this point.
The female is the deciding factor on the special place her cygnets will be born. The two will either choose their nest from the year before or if they are newlyweds, they will build from scratch. With a moat built around the nesting area, the digging of plants is a task at hand first. The nests are traditionally around eight feet across with height of approximately 132 feet above the water surface.
The female lays her eggs and the incubation process begins. The swan will lay between 3 and 9 eggs which are an off-white color. It takes about 34 days for the incubation to lead into actual hatching. The mother leaves the nest for short periods of time to eat, while the father takes guard close by to watch for any predators.
The cygnets begin to cry for their parents as soon as they are born. The babies leave the nest to venture off on their “own” after a day or two of parental observation. While the parents do give them the freedom, they also watch over them closely and help pull up plants to make eating easier. Needing to return to warmer climates, the babies learn to fly as soon as the wintry weather hits.
The Mute Swan
Further east we have the mute swan species. Originally from Europe, the swans were first pond ornaments in the 1800s for higher class folks. Populations of the mute swans grew to 500 by 1911 and to 1500 by 1993. The mute swan species are now at about 3,000. Native environments include England, Wales and Ireland. The populations expand out through the northern region of Europe and have been brought to the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Native areas for the mute swan will find them as couples in their breeding areas but during the winter, they hang with the flock on the waterways. On the Baltic coast, because of the calmer winters, most stay in the area during the wintry season as well as the rest of the year. When the ice hits the waterways, they can break up the icy surface with their feet to gain access to food underneath.
Male mute swans become rather territorial during the nesting period. Males will throw themselves into a threat posture by flapping their wings, pushing their feathers backward, lowering their heads and with amazingly powerful thrusts, strut through the water with an aggressive attitude. Lifting his wings and throwing feathers outward gives him the appearance he is larger than his actual size.
The life span of the mute swan is around 50 years, although because of various components such as predators, severe weather and environmental dangers, most swans will not live past seven years old in the wilderness.
Mute swans are like their cousins, the trumpeter swan in terms of pairing with a mate for life. The female will set up the house to prepare for her babies. The eggs are a greenish brown color that will be laid on an every other day cycle and there will be five to eight eggs in all.
Cygnets are born with fluffy gray down. They, like the trumpeter swans, will leave the nest immediately. The plants that grow in the area surrounding the nest are removed by the root to give the babies food to eat. As their cousin, they will also eat various invertebrates until they are old enough to not rely on protein with their diet.
During the winter months, the cygnets stay close to home. Throughout the winter, the plumage that was once gray appears as a brown. The babies won’t turn white until after their first year of life. Breeding takes place when the cygnets are full grown and about three to four years old.
The Tundra Swan
The tundra swan is a true tundra nesting bird. They live in northern Alaska and can be found as far as northern Canada. While it is rare to see a tundra swan in Tennessee during the wintry months, the summer months bring a few of these beautiful animals to light. Pacific and mid-Atlantic coastal regions are the native areas for the tundra, where they live alone or in a few groups that are smaller in number.
The tundra swan is pure white with a black pair of legs and bill. Most will traditionally house a yellow spot in front of the bird’s eye. Males and females do look alike although the male is normally larger than the female. Cygnets are pinkish in coloring that will eventually turn into the white color as they grow.
The sound a tundra swan creates is that of a group of hounds baying in the distance. The species consumes invertebrates and vegetation that lies beneath the surface of the water, although declines in their food sources have forced the tundra swan to adapt to grains and cultivated tubers left in the fields of nearby farms. During the summer months, they find new shoots, tubers and seeds to consume.
Tundra babies learn to fly at two to three months of age. The males help during the incubation period as well as the female so both can have breaks in between to seek food.
The protection agencies are working hard to stop some of the dangers facing these beautiful creatures. The loss of land, environmental changes, human interaction and activities causing pollution and hunting of the swan has decreased them in numbers.