Swans After Leaving Their Parents
Most swans leave their parents sometime between 5 and 10 months, although, there are records showing that very occasionally some pairs of birds still have at least one offspring right up the time just before the first egg is hatched in the next clutch. This is very unusual.
In my view, it’s only now that the offspring have left their parents, can you definitively state that the bird is no longer a cygnet – it’s now struck out on its own and can now be called an immature swan – although in this section, I will also use the term youngster to mean the same thing.
We will now discuss what happens to the young swans from the moment they permanently leave their parents to them finding a mate.
Young Swans Beware
As mentioned previously, one of the times when a swan is most likely to die is in the second week of life – another very hazardous time for the youngsters is when they take their first few flights that take them over quite a long distance, not just short flights within the parents’ territory. It’s during these first long flights that they have the highest probability of dying an unnatural death; they collide with man-made structures like bridges and overhead cables.
Collisions with overhead wires hanging from pylons, etc... is by far the largest cause of unnatural death to Mute Swans.
Swans are foragers and as a result, their eyes are positioned on the sides on the head, rather than facing forwards. As a consequence, their forward vision is poor and that makes them very susceptible to not seeing clearly, or at the very least, having poor visual perception of objects placed directly in front of them.
This is why, when on the land or water, if a swan wants to look forwards, it turns its head to one side, so one of its eyes faces directly forwards. This is not practical for a swan to do over a long distance, when it’s flying. Therefore, because cables are very thin, they are very difficult for swans to spot. Every year many birds die as a result of collisions with electricity cables, and immature swans who have yet to learn of these hazards are particularly prone to this cause of death.
In fact, data has shown that the peak months for this cause of death occurring are in the autumn and spring. These are the months in the year when the most number of Mute Swans are flying.
It’s not always the actual collision with the wire that causes the death. If the bird just clips the cable with its wing, they may start to topple in their flight as a result of the wing damage and land heavily. These crash landings can cause broken limbs, etc....and as a consequence, they could be unable to fly and be grounded. If they’re badly injured, they will be very vulnerable to attacks by foxes, etc...
Mute Swans are particularly exposed to these risks in regions where the wires cross waterways and some companies, whose business it is in maintaining these electricity cables, have attached plastic discs to the wires to make them more visible to birds.
As the immature swans get older, experience teaches them to give pylons a wide berth.
Mute Swans Prefer To Stay Local
One question that many people have asked me with regards to swans flying off is, “Where do they go?”
Well, to start off with, they don’t travel that far from where they were born.
Mute Swans are not migratory birds, like the Whooper and Bewick Swans that we get here in the U.K. during winter time. They stay here in the U.K. all year round. In fact, generally speaking, most don’t fly any further than about 30 miles away from their birth place. Researchers have shown that only about 3 percent of Mute Swans travel more than about 60 miles.
Where the juvenile birds have come from sizable family groups, they often elect to travel in small groups, say, twos or threes. Individuals also choose to branch out on their own, too.
But Where Do They Go?
That mainly depends on the available food supply. If they were raised in a region of abundant natural food, like a rich river valley, their first permanent movement could be as short as a few hundred metres, to a nearby rich, grass field. The exact field they select will be based on where other overwintering swans have taken temporary residence. If there are other Mute Swans that have already made a local farmer’s field their home, they will be food readily available and the youngster will set a course for it.
When the swans are moving from place to place, they have a tendency to follow the watercourse. So, in the case of a bird living in a river valley, it will normally fly within a few hundred metres of the river’s banks and be on the lookout for suitable abodes, either side of the river. The key features being an abundance of food, open space and access to the water.
As already mentioned, swans have a preference for landing in fields where there are already their own kind in residence. For the simple reason that all their needs will be satisfied because the other swans, by virtue of their presence, have given it the ‘thumbs up’.
But they don’t just go to fields; anywhere where there’s open space, access to a body of water and lots of food will do. This will include local parks, estuaries, ditches, harbours, lakes... etc.... but grassy fields on the banks of a river tend to be a favourite location.
The main advantage that the field has, over the other places, is that the waterweeds in the estuaries, harbours and lakes will die back as the temperatures fall in the winter, but the abundance of grass in a field mitigates the reduction in plant growth rate. Artificially enriched farmers fields, are especially welcome as a result of the increased grass yield.
How many Mute Swans gather in a field varies from just five or six, up to over one hundred, in exceptional cases - most flock sizes are less than twenty five birds and nearly all have less than one hundred individuals. Probably the largest flock size in the United Kingdom is to be found at Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. Here on the Fleet, just behind Chesil Beach, flocks of more than seven hundred Mute Swans can occur.
The Reason For Swans Forming Flocks
The question of why do Mute Swans gather in large groups is an interesting one because quite often when you see swans at your local river of lake, they tend not to want to let other birds get too close to them, particularly when they have young.
The first thing to be aware of is that the swans that gather in these large flocks are non-breeding birds. The breeding pairs of swans will not leave their territory, instead, they stay behind on their patch all year round, since any vacation by the swans, will be seen as a surrender and any other wandering pairs that happened along the empty territory, will probably take it as their own.
So, the young swans that have just taken off from their parents’ territory will head for a flock of swans to join the mass of non-breeding birds and, other than the presence of food and water, etc... they also join the group of non-breeders because they’re going to be looking for a mate.
Many of these swans in the flocks will be unattached, that is to say, they’ve not found a partner. In the case of a large flock, say more than thirty swans, there will be a number of paired-up swans. And these pairs tend to stay close to each other, even amongst the mass of other single birds.
These large groups of Mute Swans can be thought of as a rather large social gatherings and are the perfect place for youngsters to ‘meet’ numerous other like minded individuals. Finding a mate is probably not the first thing it will engage in, the essentials like food, water and security come before that, but if you have ever spent any time observing swans in these groups, you will see a range of social interactions – some friendly, others, definitely not so friendly!
The youngsters that have just left their mum and dad will probably spend the next two or three years in these large gatherings, learning all about the life of an adult Mute Swan.
In The Spring
The immature swans that joined the flock in the winter will generally stick with a flock of birds for most of the year, although, a few will branch out on their own and live, to a certain extent as singles (this is less than 5% of the swan population).
The spring time is a time of dispersal for these field groups. With the temperature rising and it being the season of growth, their preferred habitats like lakes and rivers, have weed starting to grow and what was once a barren winter waterway (with regard to swan food), is now a spring treasure chest bursting into life. They have good instincts to know when this is happening and they fly off to pastures new to spend more time in the water feeding, which is generally their preferred place to be, rather than on land.
To where they fly depends on a couple of factors: More mature, paired-up swans will fly off looking for a suitable territory to stake a claim to, non-paired swans will often make for a large, open waterway (large lake, estuary, etc...) to go through their annual moult.
During the annual moult they are rendered flightless for a number of weeks, hence are more vulnerable than they are normally. They seek the protection of a large expanse of water where they are not likely to experience any threatening situations which would normally require them to take flight to escape, or, would need them to have a battle to save their own life.
The numbers of Mute Swans herding together on these large bodies of water can be quite large at this time of year. They will often stay there until quite late in the autumn, when their natural food stocks become depleted. When this situation occurs, they will then be on the move again looking for another suitable place to spend the winter, where there is plenty of food, space and access to water e.g. a farmer’s artificially enriched field.
At Last, A Fully Grown, White Swan
During the time between leaving their parents and navigating their own way in the world of swans, the bird transitions from an immature swan, to a fully grown, white Mute Swan.
The few brown feathers are gradually replaced with the familiar white variety, the bird will get bigger and the bill will change from dark blue/grey, to pinkish and then orange. At the same time, their caruncle (the knob or berry where the upper part of the bill meets the head) becomes larger and they stop making those, immature, snorting noises and other cygnet calls. Although, as grown-ups, they still make some sounds like hissing, quiet calls to get the attention of their mate (and later on, cygnets), barking type sounds and rumbling/groaning like sounds when under going courtship and mating.
It may take up to its second summer (i.e. two years old) to completely lose all of the characteristics of a young swan. The last thing to visibly change will be the colour of the bill. Only when the bill is properly orange/reddish and not bluish/greyish, can the swan be called a mature adult. From this point onwards, the swan will be capable of breeding and raising its own family – just like its parents did with him/her.
Eventually, after many trials and tribulations in the flock, the young swans will find a mate and will then be flying off looking for a territory for themselves to occupy, create and protect the next generation of Mute Swans. When it comes to the age of leaving the large flocks/herds, four years is about the average. With regards to the actual age of the birds when the pair-bond is formed in the herd - normally it’s when the female is two years old and male three.