Swans’ Mating Ritual
Swans going through the mating ritual is rather an elaborate process. For many species of bird, the actual mating ritual can all be done in the order of seconds. But as you’re about to discover, Mute Swans certainly take a lot longer than a few seconds – the longest I’ve personally witnessed is about 20 minutes, from beginning to end. But I know some people have seen it go on for almost an hour!
The swans’ mating/courtship ritual is relatively long and drawn out because the displays they make to each other are very significant in maintaining the special bond that exists between the birds.
When I say mating, what I’m talking about is the whole ritual from the ever increasing intense courtship ‘dance’ until, and just after, the actual act of copulation.
What I’m going to lead you through in this section is the Mute Swan mating process from the start, where the pair get ‘interested’ in each other, right the way through to the act of copulation, to the ritual post copulation and then the return to ‘normal’ behaviour.
Before we start, I want to tell you this: If you ever have the chance to witness this occurring (and that’s probably a matter of pure chance, because they don’t exactly send out tickets, advertising the fact!), stand and marvel - you’ll think it’s an amazing experience.
They’re so graceful and beautiful. Swans are normally very graceful and beautiful to witness, but when you see a pair of swans going through the mating ritual, grace and beauty take on a new meaning. A completely new level. They’re so majestic in the way they move together – it becomes more like a ballet.
Firstly, The Swans Start To Display To Each Other
What this means is that the two paired swans will start to court one another. The two birds will be in close proximity to each other, often side by side. Both sets of wings will be lowered as much as possible to the body – the wings, and the feathers on the wings, will not be fluffed up all – unlike when they ‘casually meet’ each other in a field, or on the water, where they want to say “Hello”, to maintain the bond between the pair.
With their bodies almost side-by-side, they will start dipping their heads below the water surface and then pulling them back out and preening themselves, mainly along the flanks and to a lesser extent, on the wings.
Again and again, they will dip their heads and preen themselves, often getting faster and faster. One swan will periodically stop, raise its neck, up to almost the vertical position, angle their head downwards and look at their partner doing their head dipping and preening.
This process can go for many minutes and to the uninitiated, it can appear that the two swans are going through some sort of manic preening session, but just getting faster and faster!
The next stage is that the two swans will start to synchronise their actions, so they reach a stage where they’re acting in unison. It is at this time when it becomes obvious that the two birds are doing more than having a manic preening session. They start to make more physical contact where they press their breasts against each other’s, as they raise and lower their necks in a graceful, smooth fashion. The amount of eye contact increases during this time, too.
They will stare at each other during the up and down motions of the necks and will sometimes raise both heads together at the same time to look at each other with sideways glances as they turn their heads from side to side.
Again, this can continue for a few minutes, until there comes a time when the necks actually start to intertwine with each other’s. One swan will drape their neck over their partner’s.
It’s at this stage where the actual copulation is about to take place.
Copulation of Swans
This is the part where the essential act happens – the sperm will be injected into the female. As the swans have arrived at the stage where the necks are becoming intertwined, the next thing that will happen is that the male will mount the female.
To do this, he paddles himself so he’s right alongside side her, but facing in the opposite direction. He will then turn himself so he’s ninety degrees to her side and then clamber himself onto her back. At this point, she will be sitting much lower in the water due his weight on her back. He then holds onto her with his feet, towards the rear and will grab onto her neck with his bill, at the front. Both swans will partially spread their wings to increase stability. All the time whilst this is happening, she’ll be slowly paddling forwards.
He manoeuvres the tail end of his body downwards to insert his phallus (the bird equivalent of a penis) into her cloaca, the same time, she raises her tail to facilitate this. The sperms are released into the cloaca, enter the vagina and swim into the oviduct, where they can fertilise an ovum in the space below the ovary, called the infundibulum.
Right now, her rear end is completely under the water as his phallus is placed inside the cloaca. The female can get so low in the water that she sometimes almost disappears – males frequently push her head under the water for a few seconds; it can look as though he’s trying to drown her!
This part often lasts for up to ten seconds, during which you can hear a low pitched snort coming from the pair.
The Final Act
Once the copulation is complete, he will quickly dismount her and the two birds will face each other and rise, by paddling vigorously, so they’re almost completely out of the water and will then perform some more head turning. During this time you can also hear a few more, low pitched rumbling snorts coming from the pair – a groan, if you like.
In my opinion, this is the most beautiful part of the whole mating ritual; two birds in perfect harmony celebrating their union.
Once this final display has finished, which lasts just a matter of seconds, the swans will then wash and preen themselves for quite a few minutes, during which time they will perform several dramatic shakedowns of their feathers, along with lots of tail wagging.
After this, the birds will go about their daily business of feeding, defending their territory, etc... but still staying in close proximity to each other.
Swans Engage in Extra Mating
Swans go through this whole ritual many times during the breeding season, far more often, in fact, than is required to fertilise the eggs. It has been suggested that the ‘extra’ mating rituals they go through helps service and support the bond between the pair. After all, at the very least, Mute Swans form long lasting relationships and, therefore, maintaining the bond between the two is important.