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The beauty of Swans

Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about swans originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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A mute swan and her cygnets, by J Chalkley

There can be no more glorious sight in our skies than that of migrating geese and swans. These large water birds in flight have a most romantic appeal. As the sun sets low on the horizon, the brilliant autumnal colours are broken only by the black shapes of birds flying in a ‘V’ formation. Occasionally a solitary goose passes slowly overhead, the only sound being a distant throbbing wing beat.

The only member of this group not to take part in the annual migration ritual is the mute swan. This partially domesticated bird has lost the migratory instincts of its wild ancestors, and spends the entire winter on its usual pond or park lake. It differs from its immediate relations in yet another respect. The mute swan is well named, for its repertoire consists of mere grunts and hisses. The whooper and Bewick’s swans’ stirring bugle calls proclaim to the world their freedom, untainted by any history of domestication.

The graceful curve of the mute swan’s white neck has inspired many artists and photographers. The exhilarating sound of their wing beats is said to have stirred the composer Wagner to write the Ride of the Valkyrie. In contrast, the whooper and Bewick’s swans fly in almost total silence, their long, straight necks stretched out before them.

Although in the main these two swans spend their breeding season high in the Arctic zone of the USSR and Lapland, they travel great distances in the winter months. The whooper swan is often seen along the Mediterranean Sea, but Bewick’s swan comes to Britain.

Their visits to the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire are so regular that it is possible to make accurate records. A team of experts sit beside the lakes and note the exact time of arrival and departure of each swan. The distinctive bill patterns of the Bewick’s swan make it possible to identify every individual. From this charted history it has been discovered that broods raised in successive years tend to stay together in family flocks of up to 15 birds.

Swans form long-lasting pairs. Consistent with this is the exceptionally aggressive behaviour during the courtship season. A male swan is particularly violent when defending his chosen territory. He may launch a savage attack on any intruder, even man, with his powerful wings and bill. With neck folded and feathers ruffled, he will beat the surface of the water with his long remiges. If a rival takes up the challenge a fight ensues.

With their elegant and majestic bearing and unblemished white plumage so rare amongst wild birds, they are the epitome of purity and beauty. This makes it rather surprising to find that, within the same group of birds, there is a species with a strongly contrasting black neck, and one that is even totally black except for the pure white of the quill feathers. In addition, this black swan of Australia has a coral red bill instead of the black or gold of the white swans.

The numerous species of swan are related to the geese through a very beautiful South American species, the Coscoroba swan. But this small white bird is still very unlike its rather drab goose relations.

On the whole the domestic geese have retained the grey plumage of their greylag ancestors. But to compare a domesticated goose with a wild one is to compare a farmyard pig with a wild boar. The differences are great.

The best-known of the many species of wild goose is probably the Canada goose, with its black neck and curved white face patch. This member of the group has now managed to gain quite a strong foothold in Europe.

Wild geese mate for life and this relationship is established through a rather dramatic ritual. Konrad Lorenz, the eminent naturalist, chooses to describe the activities of the female goose as “falling in love” with the male. The females begin by shadowing their chosen partners from among the flock, never making it too obvious. Lorenz describes how they will ogle the ganders out of the corners of their eyes, and not apparently notice the more obvious manoeuvres. The males get very excited by this attention, beat their glistening wings and circle around the females, keeping up an incessant chatter.

The ritual is not complete until the strongest member of the flock, usually a gander, hurls itself at the adversary, even if the latter is only imagined to be hostile. When he has won a retreat, he returns to the group honking loudly and beating his wings. Then, in the second stage of the exhibition, all the members of the flock babble softly and touch heads.

Adult geese united by this performance remain strongly tied for the rest of their lives. Should one of the pair die, the other is seriously affected. It will wander in search of its partner, calling both day and night. It becomes totally subdued and timid and sometimes even panic-stricken. Geese affected in this way have been known to flee in terror from something that they would hardly have noticed before. In addition, many students of animal behaviour maintain that they can see suffering in the facial expression of a goose.

This steadfastness of relationship can be seen at an earlier stage in the life of a goose. For when goslings are born, the first object they set eyes upon becomes imprinted in their minds as their mother. Fortunately it usually is indeed their mother. However, they have been known to fix their affection on any manner of things. It could be a person watching the eggs hatching, a passing duck or cat, or even the artificial incubator in which they were born! In one recorded instance it was a wheelbarrow. This particular gosling set up a fearful rumpus whenever the wheelbarrow was moved from sight, causing the owner of the goose some terrible problems in his garden.

It is a sad thing to see the flocks of migrating geese and swans so diminished today. As swamps and lagoons are drained dry, as rivers are dredged, dammed and cleaned, many of the aquatic plants essential to water fowl are destroyed. Factory waste and chemical byproducts are relentlessly poisoning other rivers and streams and killing off the habitat of these water birds. As habitats disappear so do the residents. Fortunately there is no immediate danger of extinction, but the plight of many ducks, geese, swans, coots, moorhens and grebes still gives rise to concern.

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