The Ugly Duckling

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story, The Ugly Duckling, tells us of the woes of a young, Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) that hatches in a clutch of duck eggs, but grows to become a beautiful swan.

The name ‘Mute’ derives from these swans being less vocal than the other members of the Cygnus genus

Mute swans are one of the most iconic waterbirds, with their white body, S-shaped neck, and reddish-orange bill that has a large black ‘knob’ at the base.

They can be found annually across most of the UK, in regions where there are shallow lakes, or slow-moving rivers, as well as some urban areas and parks. The map below shows their distribution across the UK.

Map source: RSPB (Mute Swan page)

Due to their large size, a wingspan between 208-238 cm, C. olor are easy to recognise. They are also amongst the heaviest of the world’s flying birds, averaging a weight of 10-12 kg.

These swans are known to eat water plants, particularly waterweed, insects and snails. If you were to feed mute swans, bread is not the best option as it can actually cause dietary problems. Instead, it is suggested that sweetcorn, potatoes, lettuce, oats and seeds are healthier alternatives.

C. olor are able to adapt to degraded habitats, and benefit from the invasive species Phragmites australis (common reed). These reeds flourish in disturbed sites, however, mute swans use them to build nests in so they’re protected from egg predators.

Mute swans are recorded to mate for life, with females known as ‘pens’ and males as ‘cobs’. Both parents are devoted to raising the cygnets, with the cobs being more territorial, whilst the pens brood the cygnets. The females lay up to 5-12 eggs, which take 36-38 days to incubate. The chicks hatch over a period of 26 hours, in which the parents look after the young, which take two months to fully feather. The cygnets stay with their parents until the following spring, where they are ready to start reproducing.

The fact the swans form lang-lasting pairs, and the presence of their white plumage has led to them being established as a symbol of love in many cultures.

The average mute swan also has 25,000 feathers. These were traditionally used for writing, and were called ‘pen quills, deriving from ‘feathers from the female swan’.

Mute swans are also known to flap their wings and call to each other once they’ve scared off any other birds. They presumably do this as a celebration, almost like a swan high-five.