Thriving in nests made of reeds and sticks built close to the water, swans remain faithful to their partner for life
By now many water plants are flowering. The showy White water lily is immortalized in poetry for the pure white beauty of its flowers.
Swan is one of our most ancient Anglo Saxon animal names, meaning sound or even singing. The Mute swan is something of a misnomer, especially since this supposedly silent bird does communicate with vocal noises. If you have ever approached a pair too closely in the breeding season you will be only too aware that these large birds – the largest water bird in the British Isles – can produce an intimidating loud, hoarse hiss, often accompanied by the threatening display of swimming with breast thrust forward, head curved back, wings arched and feathers ruffled. ‘Busking’ is a beautiful sight if not rapidly targeting you. With its majestic grace and gliding, mystical beauty, it is not surprising that these birds are associated with the pagan gods and goddesses of the Celtic world.
Mute swans can be distinguished by the black fleshy knob at the base of the beak, larger in the male cob than the female pen, and reaching full size as the adult swan becomes sexually mature at between two and four years old. Once they have found a partner they remain faithful to their mate, returning each spring to the same territory to breed.
The nest is an enormous mound of reeds, sticks and other vegetation, built close to the water’s edge. The positioning of the nest was watched carefully by country folk of old who believed that the swan built it high before floods, but low when there was no prospect of unusual rains. It probably more closely reflects the experience of the parent birds. The pen lays up to seven chalky greyishgreen, round-ended eggs, at daily intervals towards the end of April. Incubation takes over a month and is predominantly the duty of the pen, with the cob guarding, though he will take his turn on the nest when she feeds and preens. The cygnets (from the diminutive of the old French word cygne for swan) usually all hatch within 24 hours.
Cygnets are covered in soft, fur-like, silvery-grey down and leave the nest for the water after only a few days, returning to its safety for up to a month at night.
Both parents pull up submerged vegetation to help them feed and take the cygnets for protective rides on their backs. The family group remains together as the cygnets grow and by the time they are six months old they have brown feathers and are able to fly – and their parents are much less keen on feeding them.
The swan uses its long neck to feed on underwater plants which, along with semi-aquatic plants, make up the bulk of its diet. Iron in the river or canal bed can stain the feathers when they are looking for food, giving some swans a rusty top-knot. Swans also eat grit (and hence small lead weights, now banned from use by anglers) to aid the gizzard in the breakdown of its tough vegetable diet. By nowmany water plants are flowering. The showy White water lily is immortalized in poetry for the pure white beauty of its flowers. The Elizabethans believed that the powdered rhizome would encourage chastity. The flowers, floating on the water’s surface amongst the lily pads, only open in sun. Its lack of submerged leaves renders it especially vulnerable to disturbance by boats breaking the floating surface leaves. Much of our native population has probably now been replaced by cultivated escapees.
The Yellow water lily has thin, translucent, cup-shaped underwater leaves in addition to the thick, leathery, oval, flat ones on the surface. Everything is attached to a rhizome growing in the mud below still or slowmoving water. The flowers of the Yellow water lily are held aloft on stout upright stems, looking more like large aquatic buttercups than lilies, and give off an alcoholic scent that attracts pollinating flies. The alternative name of Brandybottle refers to the green bottle-shaped fruit.
Enjoy the beauties of summer.