Swans’ First 2 Weeks
Swans leave the nest site after about forty eight hours, any unhatched eggs will be abandoned. The family group will not return to the nest site as a matter of course, from now on, the family will live within the range of the group’s territory, not necessarily spending the nights in the same spots.
This section will cover what happens to the family of swans during the first two weeks of the cygnets’ life. We will look at what are the crucial aspects which determine whether a given cygnet survives, what it eats and how it finds its food, along with the various sounds baby swans make with its family group.
The Essential Elements For Survival
These first two weeks of the young swan’s life are particularly precarious; they’re more vulnerable during this period than at any other time in their life. They are very small, have much to learn and are almost defenceless.
The most important questions in determining whether the baby swan will make it through this fortnight are:
Can it feed it-self efficiently?
Is it growing strongly?
Can it swim well?
Does it avoid predators?
Is it disease and relatively parasite free?
Can it keep warm?
We will now look at each one in turn and what the cygnet does to increase its chances of survival.
As already mentioned in the section, Baby Swans, when the cygnet hatches, not all of the yolk inside the egg would have been used up as a food source. So, when it emerges from the egg, it adsorbs the remains of the yolk into its body. This acts as a significant source of nutrients for the young over the next week to ten days.
This is a major factor in the survival rates of very young swans. If for some reason, the cygnet did not adsorb a large amount of egg yolk at the time of hatching, the chances of it making it past the first week to 10 days, are very much reduced. This food source has a major advantage over externally obtained food sources in that it is very easily metabolised by the bird and far more digestible than the plants and insects that the swan will eat from the lake or river.
The mortality rate of cygnets in the second week of their life is higher than those in the first week. (The first week’s mortality rate is about 9%, 22% for the second week.)
Bearing in mind that a lot of the first week’s food source is provided by the bodily adsorbed egg yolk, it is the efficiency of how it determines food from the outside which will have a major impact on whether the cygnet dies or not in the second week.
By this time, the entire internal food store has been used up and it must feed itself properly from the water. If it can’t do this, it will die. This is a dominant reason why more baby swans die in the second week compared to the first week.
As described further on in this section, the parents don’t directly feed their young, unlike many other species of birds, such as kingfishers – swans have to be born with that instinct to effectively feed themselves from the word go.
Assuming an offspring is feeding itself properly, it has to grow strong – and do so quickly. They live in a world of survival of the fittest, so, if for some reason, it remains diminutive in size (because of poor internal metabolism, for example) the one thing it won’t be able to do is to swim fast enough keep up with its parents or siblings – this is a big problem. They will be more vulnerable to being picked off by predators such as seagulls, herons and crows – which have all been known to eat unguarded cygnets.
As well as those dangers, baby swans away from their mum or dad, are virtually defenceless at this age from being attacked and killed by another cob swan that could be in the vicinity. At this stage of the year, other cob swans will attempt to kill intruders into their territory because of the need to protect his own family.
Notwithstanding the increase in risk from predators, if a baby swan gets left behind its ability to get enough food diminishes, too, since it won’t be alongside mum and dad when they lead them to food sources.
Generally speaking, if a family does have a cygnet that is not strong enough when it comes to swimming, etc.... the cob will often either chase it away from the group, or, he will kill it himself directly. The reason for this could be that waiting for it catch-up to the family group could jeopardise the survival of the rest of the family. Slowing things down when it comes to going from one food source to another, moving to resting spots or swimming away from threatening situations, will increase the probability of mishap to the rest of the brood.
The method of culling the weakling could be drowning – here the male will grab the baby swan around its neck and hold it underwater to drown it. If the situation is on land, what I’ve seen is that cob will attempt to kill it by crushing it, causing suffocation. It will do this by sitting on it with its breast – that part of the swan where its long neck joins to its abdomen, the weight of the cob will render the cygnet pinned to the ground, unable to breathe.
Linked in to being physically weak as a reason for premature death, some cygnets can become infested with parasites and contract disease. Again, if the parents detect this, they will normally chase it away from the family group or the cob will kill it.
The Outlook For Late Arrivals Can Be Bleak
Although nature has designed the hatching of the cygnets to be synchronised (see section, Baby Swans), some will inevitably hatch later than others. If there’s a time where there is a significant difference in time between the majority of the clutch hatching and the last cygnet emerging from its egg (more than twelve hours, say), there could be a situation where the family group goes for its first swim but the late arrival could still be relatively weak and will be unable to keep up with its siblings.
Although, it’s possible that there’s nothing wrong with it, other than it’s still recovering from the exhausting hatchling process, it will be perceived as a weakling and therefore culled by the parents, normally by the cob.
However, the late emergence from the egg could actually be a predictor of another problem with the hatchling, in which case the parents would be ‘justified’ in removing it from the family as a potential weak link.
Young swans are vulnerable in many aspects, one of these is that they still have relatively small bodies and their relatively large surface area at this stage of their lives makes them susceptible to overheating and getting fatally chilled. As you know (see the section, Swan Biology) birds are warm blooded and their temperature has to remain within a very narrow band in order to remain healthy. If their body temperature was to get too high or low, they will become ill or die – just like us human beings.
Young cygnets have a few strategies to prevent themselves from getting too hot or too cold.
To prevent themselves from getting too hot, they often shelter from direct sunlight beneath their mothers wings or position themselves below the pen’s entire body.
This is often seen when the family group is still on the nest, where there is space and ‘softness’ between mum’s abdomen and the nest material.
When the family has reached the stage where they have left the nest site, they will often sit below mum when she stands up; swans can sleep standing up and the cygnets use her as a parasol in such times. Incidentally, in the midst of moving around, etc... parents often step on their babies. This does not appear to do the cygnets any harm, in fact, it’s probably a good test of physical fitness and strength!
One other thing that all swans do, not just the cygnets, is to expose their webbed feet to the air when they’re in the water. This is probably a good method of temperature regulation since there are numerous blood vessels in the feet and thermal energy is easily released by the dilation of blood channels.
Another thing the babies do is to climb onto mum and, to a much lesser extent, dad. The temperature of the water is a lot lower than the temperature of the cygnet’s body. Therefore since their fluffy down is still thin and its waterproofing will not be as good as the adults, they tend to lose heat rather rapidly when swimming around in the water because the cold water will partially come into contact with their skin.
Fatigue and tiredness quickly result and if the family is still on the water, they will seek the shelter of their parents’ back. This will provide them with not just a potential sun shade, but also the means of getting out of the cool water.
The pen and cob will not actively assist them in climbing aboard, what they normally do is to stop swimming, ensure their tail is lowered so it’s reasonably flat to the water. The cygnet is them able to clamber onto the pen (normally it’s the mother that is the chief baby carrier) and climb their way between their wings up to the position behind the adult’s neck.
From there, they can watch what’s going on around them and when they get really tired, they can huddle down in the warm space between the parent’s wings and have a sleep. This trick of riding on mum is often used when it’s been raining heavily for a long time, since their down can get soaked through and by the pen positioning her wings appropriately, the baby can be relatively well sheltered from the elements.
The preference for the pen over the cob obviously raises the point that the young can clearly distinguish between the male and female swans. This will probably be a visual clue because they seem to be able to make the distinction even when the swans are not making many sounds.
Cygnets may not make the visual conformation by looking solely at the size of the caruncle (the berry or knob where the upper bill joins the head), we need to remember that birds can see into the ultra violet range of the electromagnetic spectrum, so it could be the pen and cob look a slightly different colour to each other. It’s very difficult for us to fully understand this because we are unable to see into the ultra violet region and to us, both the pen and cob look simply plain white.
However, there are times when the adults will not permit the cygnets to hitch a ride with them. In these situations, the mature swan will resist their offspring’s attempts by swivelling round when they see or feel the cygnet trying to get on board. It can be quite comical to watch this happening as the young cygnets don’t normally give up easily - the adults can be seen spinning around on the spot to thwart their efforts!
Often, they will persist long enough to get their own way in the end and they can be seen riding high on mummy’s back looking very proud of themselves!
There seems to be something that, for much of the time, prevents the cygnets wanting to ride on dad’s back. They only normally go for his ride when the pen is not available, because she already has a ‘full load’, or she’s on the bank. Either way, the cob is not normally keen to have them riding on him and the cygnets would rather ride on the pen, when given the choice.
Another time when cygnets rest for long periods of time on the parents’ back is at night. For most of its life, a swan will sleep on the water. (This is preferable since, when fully grown, there are fewer potential threats from predators afloat on the water, compared to sleeping on land.) Cygnets often spend their ‘night’s sleep’ on their parents back because it’s safer and warmer.
However, sometimes, particularly so with large families, the adults will create another ‘nest’ in a reed bed, or something similar, so the group can use that at a favoured spot for sleeping at night as well as preening and resting during the day. Favoured locations for these include islands and other not easily accessible locations.
How A Baby Swan Finds Its Food
Although all waterfowl are born with a lot more independence and bodily functionality than many other birds (think back to seeing birds such as baby blue tits and how much help they need from their parents) young swans still need to be lead to good food supplies.
What normally happens is that the family will move through the territory in a formation of pen (leading), cygnets and cob (keeping guard at the back). The female will take the family group to favoured spots where she knows she’s able to find food.
Cygnets in their first week will not be capable to dipping their head below the water surface for much longer than one second, so any food will need to be on, or very near, the surface, or, just above it. They will enthusiastically mop up floating plants, etc... but will also consume a relatively large amount of invertebrates in the early days. (See section Swans’ Food) These can be often be picked off overhanging plants that drape over the water surface as well as those floating on the surface.
Both parents play an active part in making food available to their offspring. There are two primary ways in which they do this: One is to pull up plants from below the surface and the other is to paddle vigorously on the spot for a few seconds, stirring up food laying on the river or lake bed.
When the adults pull up food that’s out of reach to the young cygnets, they grab a bill full of weed and dump it onto the surface. The cygnets, often waiting downstream, then rush forward to gobble up the plant material. The cygnets will generally spread themselves out between the pen and cob to ensure they are not left out by having to squabble amongst a competitive crowd.
Sometimes you can observe the adults paddling strongly on the spot, so strongly in fact that they partially raise themselves out of the water. This method of locating food is sometimes called, foot-trampling. What they are doing in this case is using their large webbed feet to stir up debris and insects from the river or lake bed, these then float to the surface where they are rapidly eaten by the cygnets. Foot-trampling is only effective in shallow water because if the water is too deep, the disturbance cause by the movement of the feet will not create sufficient turbulence to raise food particles to the surface.
Trampling is one method of feeding that is primarily used when the cygnets are very young. It is still used when the young are a few months old, and even when the adults are alone without young, but with decreasing frequency.
What I have seen is that the adults, mainly the pen, will use the foot-trampling action to show ‘excitement’ or anticipation, of food to come and her action of doing this seems to draw her young closer in. (Her reaction to thinking there’s food on the way is similar to how domestic cats ‘mark-time’ with their front paws just before their owner is about to feed them.) For example, when someone moves the water’s edge with a bag of food to feed the swans, she will often move to within a safe distance and ‘mark-time’ on the spot, which seems to have the effect of bringing in her babies to gather round the ‘dinner table’. The birds look visibly excited!
As time passes and the cygnets develop, you can observe the young performing this foot action themselves when in suitably shallow water.
Swans are quite untidy feeders as they pull up or stir-up more food than will actually be consumed by the whole family. The surplus flows downstream, or downwind on a stillwater, where resident ducks take advantage of the free food source. The other wildfowl will not venture too close, though, since they are likely to be chased off by either one of the adults.
As time progresses, the young swans will be able to hold their breath for a longer period of time below the surface so they can start pulling up their own weed to eat. Normally before the first two weeks has passed, they are able to upend for a couple of seconds and increase the depth of water in which they can find sustenance.
Swans at this stage of their life are very reliant on their parents to be their guide, watch and protector. Without these, the babies would soon perish. If the adults are to fulfil their role effectively, they need considerable help from the young themselves. And this is how the cygnets do that; they make a repertoire of sounds that serve to inform their parents (and probably to a lesser extent, their siblings) of when they’re hungry, feel lost, cold, contented, threatened and tired. Making calls is the primary way in which the offspring will communicate with their parents and this continues up to the point where they will actually leave their parents.
The calls from cygnets also help to keep the group close together as a tight unit, which reduces the chances of predation and getting lost.
As discussed in the section, Swans Incubating Eggs, the first vocalisations are made when the potential hatchling is still inside the egg, about forty eight hours before emergence. This is the first time the bird will directly communicate with its mother and the other cygnets. It is nature’s way of telling the pen and cob that hatching is imminent and for all the other potential hatchlings to ‘time’ their emergence so all of them hatch on the same day. This is probably the start of the imprinting process between the mother and cygnet – see the section, Baby Swans.
Once free from the egg, the cygnets will make sounds from the word go. The first of these is a contentment call. These are the soft calls that you can hear as cheeeeep, cheeeeep sounds when the hatchling is fully awake and warm -normally when it’s exploring its new environment, preening, feeding etc... The cheep, cheep calls often come in groups of two to six, a short pause, followed by another group of cheeps.
As well as communicating with its parents, cygnets also use their vocalisations to communicate with siblings. Typically one youngster will greet another with a quick raising of their head and neck extension, an acknowledgement followed by louder cheep, cheep sounds. These calls often appear to have some inflection in the sounds, too. This basically means the individual cheep appears to change in pitch from low frequency, to high frequency, back to low frequency again throughout the short duration of the single cheep call.
When the cygnet is lost, hungry, cold, distressed, etc.... it will emit louder calls than it would than when it was feeling contented and the pitch of the sounds is higher, too.
When lost, the aim is to make themselves as conspicuous as possible in order to attract attention. They will position their bodies in a stiff, upright posture to make themselves as large as possible. The fluffy down over their head will stand up and their mouth will be agape. The calls will be very loud and regular, usually with every breath out. They will continue to make sounds until found, or until they become exhausted.
When a cygnet feels cold or hungry, the cries are not as loud as when the offspring is deserted, but fall somewhere in the middle in terms of volume and pitch between feeling contented and being isolated. They’re not as ‘smooth’ as when all is well with the bird, but not as ‘spikey’ or harsh, as when they are lost. The difference is very subtle.
Once the adult’s attention has been obtained, the pen will normally either brood them by allowing them to climb onto their back and sit between their wings, or, will lead them to food. You can immediately notice the change in the calls from the distressed cries to one of quiet contentment.
When a baby swan becomes tired (which doesn’t take long because they’re still very small at this stage), the calls instead of being ‘smooth’ and clearly defined (as when they are feeling contented), they become quieter, softer, where the sounds become merged into slurred calls, just like a person when they’re feeling tired – the voice gets a kind of ‘yawny’ sound to it.
Parent hearing these calls from the cygnets will lead them to shore so they can rest, or, will permit them to climb on them where they can sleep in a warm cosy spot between her partially raised wings.
We will often observe the cygnets getting tired all at the same time - it’s advantageous for the whole brood to rest together. Otherwise, there would be a situation where some of the young will be feeding and others would be resting, the end result would be that the parents’ attention would be divided, meaning that they would not be able to effectively provide the cygnets with food and give them protection. This would lead to an increase in the mortality rate and the brood size would decrease. Therefore, maybe part of the function of the ‘tired’ call is to signal to the whole family to rest together.
Sometimes a cygnet experiences extreme distress, for example, if it’s being attacked by a predator (or another adult swan from a neighbouring family), pecked at by another bird or has been injured. In these cases, the call will be very loud and resemble a shriek, rather than the familiar cheeping sound.
Responses from the mother and father are immediate and will rush over to investigate.