Swans hatching from their eggs is the glorious end to the long drawn out vigil that the female swan has endured for over a month. Severely weakened and in need of food, the pen (and cob) will spend just a couple of days at the nest with her hatchlings, before their great life adventure starts.
This section will deal with how the parents care for their young between their emergence from the egg, until when the newly hatched baby swans go for their first swim.
A Baby Swan Is Born
After their epic struggle to break free from the egg, the cygnets are still covered in a waxy layer that surrounded it whilst in the egg, shielding it from various liquids that were contained inside. This waxy coating gives them their wet look that they have when they’ve just hatched, but it soon disappears over the next few hours as it dries and some of it rubs off, when they push themselves against their mother and over the nest material.
Once dry, the baby swan takes on that light grey, fluffy appearance that makes cygnets look so appealing to onlookers.
The weight of the cygnet at the time of hatchling is about 64% of the weight of the egg when it was first laid (the missing 36% is accounted for in the weight of the egg shell, membranes, liquids/moisture and losses due to metabolism) and 2.5% of its final weight, when it’s an adult.
The cygnets are extremely vulnerable at this stage; they have very little fear of anything, so their parents will now be at their most protective, even aggressive, to any intrusion. The reason for the cob and pen becoming particularly sensitive to any outside influence at this time is because their young are about to programme themselves, or ‘set’ themselves, to another object that they will instinctively follow for the next six months, or so. They will rely on their parents to lead them to food, provide shelter and set an example for them to follow.
This is known as imprinting. What basically happens is that the first large moving object that the cygnet sees, it will ‘lock on’ to (in other words, imprint on) and follow it religiously, until its time has come to fly off and make a new, independent life of its own.
But it’s not just vision that swans use to imprint – they also use sound. Even from quite early on in the incubation period, the developing embryo will be able to hear sounds inside the egg from the outside world. It is believed that the pen and cob make a number of sounds during the nesting period that they use to start the imprinting process of their offspring.
After the cygnet is born, the mother and father make a number of sounds the baby swans use to programme themselves to audibly recognise their parents. (Each swan produces its own unique sound, rather like humans have their own unique voice. The pen has a slightly higher pitched sound than the cob.)
The swan’s hatchling is what we call a precocial hatchling. Which means it’s fully able to see and walk as well as being able to feed and clean itself. It will have down (a fluffy furry like substance) and will need nowhere near the amount of care from its parents that a chick from a kingfisher or a blue tit would need. However, a baby swan will be very functional right from the word go, even though it will still need a lot of care and guidance from pen and cob. This is why it imprints on them because it needs a guiding light for the first days of its life.
Swans have been known to imprint on chickens, ducks or even humans, so that’s why mum and dad are especially careful that the first things its baby sees and hears are its parents. Good parental instinct guides them in this way because imprinting on mum and dad will ensure the cygnets are given everything they needs to grow up into adult swans.
To facilitate the imprinting process and to familiarise themselves with their offspring, they will often put their heads up very close to the baby’s head and make soft calls to them.
This also tells us why the pen and cob are so keen to rid their territory of any other large, ‘imprintable’, object. If there were any other imprintable objects around, there is a distinct danger that their offspring could learn to follow something else and not the parents, which will mean the baby’s needs are unlikely to be met and it will die.
As the cygnet imprints on mum and dad, it starts to learn fear of many other objects (such as humans and other swans), which will assist its survival instincts.
After a day or two, the thorn like egg-tooth will fall off - it’s served its purpose and is no longer needed.
The Cygnets' First Day
The first day of life will be spent on the nest with both parents along with any other hatchlings. Offspring will first dry themselves out and imprint on their parents. They will sleep a lot of the time under the pen and occasionally stagger around the mother’s perimeter, exploring their new exciting world.
The hatchling will do very little feeding at this stage, it will have absorbed the remains of the egg yolk from inside the egg during the hatching process. This provides it with a significant proportion of it sustenance over the first week to ten days. Nonetheless during their first day, cygnets will still be grabbing a hold of various objects in their mouths to explore what’s edible and what’s not.
During its first day, the cygnet will favour staying under the mother’s abdomen or inside her slightly outstretched wings.
As previously mentioned in the section, Swans Incubating Eggs, cygnets start to make sounds from about forty eight hours before the hatching time. But it’s after hatching that their callings start to become true vocalisations.
These sounds the cygnet makes form a very important part in the communication between itself, other cygnets and its parents.
Around the nest site a quiet cacophony of cygnet sounds can be heard, along with various less frequent calls from the parents. Both parties are continuing to familiarise themselves with each other’s calls. At this stage, the cygnets mainly produce soft, quiet sounds which indicate alertness and ‘contentfulness’.
It’s unusual for Mute Swan cygnets to enter the water in the first day; they will spend their entire first twenty four hours very close to their mother, whilst she continues to incubate any unhatched eggs, as well as brooding her babies. The cob is normally positioned just beside her – affording her protection and familiarising himself with his new family. Occasionally he will take a trip round the territory close to the nest, just to check that there are no unwanted ‘guests’ around.
Even on the first day, the cygnets will be seen preening themselves. Although, their initial coat of down will be partially waterproof (they’re born with downy fluff, rather than recognisable feathers), it needs a lot of care and attention to keep it in good condition. Swans have a preen gland on top of their tail - the oil from this gland will need to spread over the entire bird in order to keep the fluffy coat waterproof.
The Cygnets’ Second Day
For their first night, the pen will ensure the babies are tucked under her abdomen or under her slightly outstretched wings, for protection and warmth. The cob will generally sleep right beside her, too.
Commonly at this stage, all the eggs that are going to hatch, will have hatched – so now the time has come for the cygnets to be given their first lessons in how to live as a Mute Swan.
The first thing that is noticeable on the second day, is that there is a lot more noise and activity around the nest site. The cygnets are no longer recovering from the hatching process, but will be exploring more adventurously.
One of the first things they will do is to continue to peck at all manner of objects for edibility and eat one or two items, bits of grass and such like. They will spend less time tucked under mum, they will start to clamber all over her, particularly looking to get on top and exploring her back, neck, etc...
This need for the cygnets to climb is a very positive instinct because when out on the water, they will need to periodically climb onto their parents for protection and warmth, particularly as they tire quickly.
It’s on their second day that the family will take their first all important swim. This frequently occurs any time from late morning to early in the afternoon. One or other of the parents will get into the water first and then beckon their babies to follow them. They call them by making a number of high pitched sounds and raising their heads inviting the cygnets to join them.
It’s not usual for the young ones to be a little reluctant at first, often getting to the water’s edge and then backing away. But persistent calls from both parents and staring from the pen and cob will eventually entice them into the water.
On making contact with the water, the cygnets will let out a loud cacophony of short trill sounds as if to say how excited they are, or maybe, expressing how cold the water feels on their little webbed feet!
They will often be seen rushing around in a haphazard manner, struggling to maintain upright as they wobble round finding their balance.
Mum and dad will lead them on a swim of maybe twenty minutes or so, during which the babies will generally stay as a group, with mum leading and dad keeping an eye on things at the back. The cygnets will be busy exploring their new world – pecking and eating all manner of floating plants, pulling at plant stems draping over the water surface, eating small insects and all the while, they will be giving out a continuous stream of sounds communicating to the parents.
Swans at this very early stage of their life will frequently stop what they’re doing, raise their head and stare at their parents. This behaviour lasts for many weeks, albeit with decreasing frequency as their development progresses, and probably forms part of the process of making and maintaining the bond between them and their parents.
Getting towards the end of the swim, the cygnets will start to tire. This is probably due not only to the length of the swim, but also, that their little bodies will have to work faster to maintain their high body temperature (swans are warm blooded, see section Biology of Swans).
When this happens the babies will want to get out of the water, either by going ashore, or, by climbing onto the back of mum or dad. This is the reason for that instinctive climbing that the cygnets get up to on mum, as discussed earlier on. The young will need to climb onto either one of their parents and take a ride.
When the family goes ashore, the cygnets often struggle to get out of the water. The primary reasons for this are because the little swans are simply physically tired, but also because the bank can be quite steep and, even though they have little nails on their webbed feet, they find it difficult to get a purchase on the ground.
The parents do not actually push or pull them out of the water, but they call to them in a high pitched voice. If the babies are experiencing prolonged difficulties in getting onto the bank, the intensity of their calling increases along with mum and dad beckoning, in unison, often from very short range.
I’ve seen cygnets experience major problems with clambering out onto the bank, going on for over half an hour, the baby tries relentlessly to climb out - it tugs at the heart strings to see such helpless babies struggling to get out of the water. The parents are right there, almost standing on top of them, calling encouragingly, but there’s nothing they can do. Normally the struggling cygnets make it. (Part of the selection process that the swans use in determining the nest site is to ensure the banks are suitable for their babies being able to get into and out of the water –see section on Swan Nesting, but they don’t always get it right.)
When the young finally make it to shore, the first thing they do is to preen and then take a well earned nap. If the actual nest is a couple of metres from the water’s edge, the whole family will sleep for a short while before making their way to the nest.
When on the nest, there will be a lot preening going on from the whole family. Cygnets will be clambering around all over the nest, each other and the pen. The cob will normally sit just to one side guarding the whole nest site and protecting his family from any unwelcome attention.
If at the time of the first swim, there are still unhatched eggs, the pen will sometimes continue incubating, whilst the cob takes the hatchlings out for their first adventure. What normally happens though, is that all the eggs that are going to hatch would have hatched by now and the mother will leave the whole eggs unattended, which will probably end up being abandoned when the family leave the nest permanently on the third day.
There will usually be a second, or even a third, swim before the end of the day. Each successive swim gets a little longer in duration and after each one, the family will preen, sleep and play around with each other.
Commonly, after the second night, the whole family will leave the nest site for the last time… their semi nomadic lifestyle has now started.
What Happens Next?