Swans’ First 3 Months
Swans have a challenging first two weeks, once they’ve made it past that first fortnight, they’ve passed through one of the most vulnerable periods of their life. The time between now and the third month birthday, is very difficult and risky too – but they’re grown a bit and if they’ve made it this far, they’re clearly able to meet their basic survival needs, such as being able to feed themselves, keep warm and avoid harmful situations.
If a cygnet can make it to 3 months, there’s a very good chance they will make it to independence. In other words, being able to fly off and leave the parents.
In this section we will look at how the young progress from being classified as a baby to a recognisable young swan. This is the period of their life where they pass through the stage of The Ugly Duckling – the old story from Hans Christian Andersen, around 1843 and 1844.
In reality, the cygnets are far from ugly at anytime – they are simply transforming from a chick with lots of fluff (down) all over it, to a young swan with proper feathers and growing that characteristic long, flexible neck of Cygnus olor.
No More Free Rides On Mum!
Once the cygnets get beyond fourteen days old, one of the first things to stop are the free rides on mum and dad. The cygnets are getting noticeably larger and heavier now – too much for mum and dad to shoulder the weight of. The young are getting stronger everyday and with the increase in weight, they are able to sustain physical activity for longer periods of time.
With the increase in weight, comes an increase in size – this reduces their surface area to volume ratio so they are more efficient at maintaining body heat. Therefore, there will be less brooding and nestling into mum’s wings and body from now on. In fact, from about three weeks of age, this hardly happens at all.
Although, mum and dad will no longer ferry them around, their youngsters are still the equivalent of toddlers, so the pen and cob will still closely care for them for at least the next six months, but with decreasing intensity and attention.
Although the family have deserted the breeding nest where the babies were born, some families of swans still make other, smaller, nests during this time when they’re actually bringing up their offspring.
All family groups of swans have favourite spots where they like to stand, preen and have a sleep – not all families, though, spend considerable time and energy pulling up nearby plants to use as materials to build a nest.
These non-egg depository nests can be quite large in diameter, some are over eight feet across, but they are not built up to a high level, like some of the ‘proper’ nests can be. This is because the family will not use that spot for weeks on end, like the egg laying nests.
What often happens is that they will use one location for a few days or a week, then they’ll switch their preference to somewhere else – where they may, or may not, build another nest for preening, etc...
Favourite places for the swans to create these are rather like the sort of locations they choose for their proper breeding nest; relatively secluded, shallow water surrounding the nest, near food plants, etc... I’ve seen substantial bulrush beds be significantly reduced by a pen and cob pulling up the stems and laying them down to form a comfortable nest site.
A Typical Day For A Young Swan Family
These little stations they create for themselves become an integral part of their daily activity. Swans, on the whole, have a life where one day is very similar to the next.
The family will sleep together as a group, with the male and female swans making sure their cygnets are always close by – especially when they’re very young. At first light, the cygnets will start to stir and you can hear lots of their ‘contented’ calls coming from them.
Various family members will have a bit of preen and shakedown (a shakedown is where they stand up and flap their wings back and forth a few times). The pen will then lead them to a food source, like some floating weed, overhanging vegetation or the adults will pull up plant material for them to eat. The young will still consume a few insects, but the number they eat will decrease as they will have a growing preference for the normal swan diet of pond weed, etc... As their preference for plant material grows, they will start to ‘upend’ to feed, holding their breath for longer and longer as they grow up. But they will not be sufficiently developed to match the adults for the time spent holding their breath until they have left the family unit.
Periods of feeding could last anywhere between twenty minutes up to an hour. It depends on how quickly the cygnets tire – as they progress through these first three months, they can last for longer and longer periods of time before they let out their tired calls and the family will take a break.
For this break, the pen will lead them (often by using high pitched calls) to a sheltered spot – somewhere out of the main flow, if they’re on a river, or to a suitable area of gently sloping banking, if they live on a pond or lake. If their nest is not too far away, they could return to that spot for their rest. The cob will normally follow on at the rear, but sometimes keeping a distance away from the main group – more so as the cygnets get older.
Once at their chosen location, all the individuals will have another preen and once this is done (which can take about thirty minutes), they’ll take a nap.
When settling down for a sleep, the cygnets will often huddle together, sometimes even resting their head on another’s body – although this is not usual.
Playtime And The Game Of Death
Depending on how tired they were when they get to the resting station, the cygnets will often spend some time playing with the other family members. You can see them chasing each other about and sometimes diving underwater to evade their pursuer. I have even seen cygnets playing with the mother, where they chase her and then she’ll turn round and chase them (the cob keeps his distance whilst keeping his watch over the territory and family). This is very good practise for when the cygnets will have to do it for real....
During their period of upbringing, particularly on a river, they will more than likely come into contact with another family of swans and the male swan of that group will be inclined to kill another family’s babies. This is when these playing skills could save their life. I have seen the cob swan from another family be very determined in his pursuit of another group’s cygnets. He’ll dive underwater and do all he can to get the other baby. So the better a youngster is at diving underwater and being hard to get, the greater their chance of survival.
Clearly, the older the cygnet is the better its chance of escaping the other male swan. It’ll be able to hold its breath for longer when swimming underwater and, if it is caught, and the cob grabs hold of its neck and pushes the head below the surface, it’ll be able to last longer before it suffocates or drowns.
It’s a shocking scene to witness, but we have to accept that this is normal in the life of a baby Mute Swan.
When the cygnets are having their rest, mum and dad will often be continuing to build up the nest (if that’s where they’ve rested) or shuffling bits of vegetation around the spot where they’re taking their break.
Any little noise or disturbance will cause the group to look around and start cheeping. If there’s no immediate danger, they will soon settle down and drift off to sleep again. In fact, it’s amazing how quickly they can go back to sleep. Particularly when they’re still very young, it seems that as soon as their head falls to its sleeping position, their eyes are closed and they are asleep. This instant sleeping ability tends to wane as they get older – rather like the adults, cygnets more than a couple months old tend to take a long time to settle down.
Once the family wake up, the first thing that happens is that there will be a lot of cheeping from the cygnets and then one of them will take to the water. This often is the catalyst for the whole group of cygnets getting in and then having another shakedown. The pen will normally be the first adult into the water, where she will call softly in a high pitch voice, beckoning them to follow her on their next little adventure.
Typically, cob will be the last off the resting spot where he will often have a preen, followed by a triumphant shakedown of this wings. His shakedowns are lot more dramatic than the pen’s as he uses his voice to advertise his presence and his slightly longer (and louder) wing flapping sends out a clear warming to other revival swans in the area – stay away.
I was once with a small family of three swans and another cob could be heard doing a triumphant shakedown in the distance. As soon as other swans heard this, they visibly flinched and paddled off in the opposite direction from where the other cob was residing and making his presence known
For a swan family in the first three months of the cygnet’s life, a typical day will follow the above pattern of feeding, preening, resting, etc...They will move through their territory going from one favoured feeding and preening spot to another. Just the old saying, swanning about!
A Life Long Habit
Ever since breaking out of their egg, the young swans start the lifelong habit of preening. As already mentioned, they have favourite spots in which to do this, these can easily be spotted by areas of the bank having numerous feathers spread around it them.
Initially all the white feathers you see in these areas will belong to the adults, after all, the cygnets in this early stage are mainly covered with grey down.
After about five to six weeks, the cygnets start to grow some proper feathers. These appear to first develop in the region of their growing wings, on the shoulders and then in the vicinity of the tail. After that, their belly and sides. Over the next few weeks, their entire body will moult the rest of their fluffy down and replace them with brown feathers, the last places for the feathers to appear is on the head and neck.
Feathers of a bird need to be kept in prime condition, and this is the function of the frequent preening. As time progresses, the cygnet will get larger and will have more and more feathers to attend to. As a result, they will devote longer times to keeping their feathers in top condition.
Without these regular and frequent preening sessions (which can take around half an hour for a cygnet), bacteria and parasites that live on them, would degrade the feathers and amongst other things, reduce their insulating and waterproofing properties.
As a part of their preening ritual, the cygnet will perform shakedowns, and these will get longer and longer as the youngster develops.
Maybe these longer shakings of the wings are also designed to help strengthen the wings muscles. Sometimes they will stand and flap their wings for over twenty seconds in a relatively slow and regular way.
This normally coincides with the cygnets starting to have the urge to start flying. Now, flight doesn’t usually start until the swan is at least 120 days old – but to build up to their first flight, they need to develop and maintain their very powerful chest muscles that will power the wings.
These longer shakedowns of their flight feathers will stimulate much needed muscular development. This is not something you see in the adults – presumably because they already have their well developed chest muscles and they just need to maintain, rather than develop, wing muscle tissue.
One lifelong occurrence the cygnets will have to get used to is having confrontations and battles. The adults are especially aggressive in the period just before and after the eggs hatch, but even notwithstanding that, they will have frequent disputes with other swans over territorial ‘rights’.
At this stage, the cygnets are too small to participate in battles, indeed, the parents will be actively doing all they can to distance their offspring from any other swan.
What normally happens is that one of the parents (not always the cob, though) will get close to the intruder and try to see them off with threatening displays or swimming aggressively towards them, which is known as busking. The other parent will then have the cygnets close to them, exhibiting threatening body language. The cygnets will normally fall in line behind the protecting parent, but interestingly, will also have their wings/feathers raised in a threat like posture, mirroring the adults.
It seems that youngsters are watching mum and dad and following their instincts on how to act in these situations. Witnessing these confrontations/standoff/battles probably plays an important aspect in raising their young.
Starting To Break Away
As the swan grows up, it will still be led by the pen to the various feeding spots, but the offspring will tend to venture further and further from their parents. Signs of independence.
As they show more signs of transforming from a baby into an easily recognisable young swan, they will start to perform many activities of an adult Mute Swan.
One of these is developing more vocalisations; their calls will be louder and they will start that very well known sound of a swan – the hiss. After just two weeks into its life, this ability to hiss is preceded by the cygnet sitting/standing with its neck in a very straight upright position or forwards position and having its mouth agape, with its tongue raised.
Later on, it will couple these actions with the hiss sound – which is used to drive away unwanted visitors, whether as a defence mechanism, or, to assert dominance.
In the next phase of a cygnet’s life, it will do things that will mark the start of when the cygnet becomes a juvenile swan – it will start to fly and then leave its parents, we will look at that in the section, Swans’ Months 4 to 6.