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What did the Cob say? What happens when a swan’s mate dies

Apologies if you now have the song “What does the Fox say,” stuck in your head after reading the title.

I live by a sizable park in the Greater London area. It has a lake, which is home to many wildfowl or waterbirds including two resident swans, who were very well known by the locals – until last year.

The two swans were a pair and would hatch up to six cygnets every year, however last year (and this was probably a blessing), they only had two.

At that point, the pandemic was known and everyone was still new to the lockdown measures, which meant a higher population than normal visiting parks and open spaces. This also included more dogs.

Swans can often be found in or near water, particularly large freshwater lakes or rivers, and canals though given their size one would not be surprised to find them in larger water areas.

When the two cygnets were ready to swim, they were out on the lake one day and a dog got into the water. Instinctively, the male swan defended his young family and unfortunately the dog retaliated and papa swan died, leaving mother swan to raise two cygnets by herself.

Following this, the local residents left food for the swans which encouraged a mixed reaction because in theory, the saftest place for them was in the water. However, the food was being left on the bank. Papa swan was killed in the water, so upon reflection the water probably wasn’t the safest place for them.

It was a rough winter for mother swan, but with support from the community she did what she did every year, and looked after her young dutifully. Before long, her cygnets were nearly the same size as her.

Looking at the characteristics of the cygnets, they both appeared to be female, with papa swan’s belligerence on some days.

The theory that swans mate for life, is true but not absolute. There is nothing to say that if a swan loses their mate, they are to remain solo for life following the grieving process. In the instance of our resident swans, every year once the cygnets were old enough, they were then sent off from their place of birth to seek out and join new colonies of swans. It was likely the same would happen with our recent additions. However, there was nothing to say that they couldn’t stay as there was only mother swan left, but if they were all female then what would they do for a mate?

Earlier this year, a few weeks went by where the swans were nowhere to be seen and I thought that perhaps all three had gone to find a new home. Quite the opposite, one evening I was relieved to see mother swan and three cygnets.

Wait…three?

I had to do a circuit of the late to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Sure enough, there were four swans.

I walked over near the edge of the lake and the new arrival approached me. I could tell this was the new swan as the other three were gliding along the water together. This new swan had more brown feathers than our ladies, a much thicker neck and was overall bigger. I was fairly certain that our new swan was a cob (male swan), though it would still be several months before its features developed and confirmed my theory.

So, it seems our clever clan found a solution to preserve life, and remain at home.

Let’s look at some more facts regarding these elegant and fascinating creatures.

Where do swans reside?

Swans are often found in many parts of the United Kingdom, as well as areas of Europe, America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

What are mute swans?

Mute swans are the biggest birds in the UK, but it is said that there are up to 6 different species of swan in the world.

A male swan is known as a cob and the female is known as a pen.

Swans can live up to 50 years old, but they typically live up to 10 years in the wild.

A male swan will typically weigh 10kg while a female swan weighs around 8kg which makes them easy to distinguish. As the male swan is bigger, when their wings are tucked back and they are swimming they create a larger hump back while the female’s hump will be lower and more streamlined.

What do swans eat?

It is no surprise given their size that swans can eat a lot of food.

Adult swans can eat 3-4kg of food every day. They eat water plants which they can reach by plunging their heads and long necks into the water, as well as grass, grains and sometimes grit.

If you have seen a swan eat grit or mud, do not mistake this for it being hungry, as swans have a second stomach and by swallowing grit this helps digestion by grinding up the food.

Depending on their settings, some swans may eat fish, frogs or insects, and sometimes bread which can provide a controversial response with some.

For more information about feeding birds bread, please consult the RSPB website.

The food that I distribute is shown below. It is complimentary to a swan’s diet and floats so they can easily pick it up, however I have found that they cannot eat enough of it. If you do become an honorary swan food provider, they do remember you – especially on the occasions you go out for a walk and don’t bring any food.

Do swans mate for life?

It is said that mute swans do pair for life and this can happen quite young, even from the age of two, when typically, they do not start to lay eggs until three to four years old.

If they are in the right setting, they will build a nest on the ground and near to water but understandably in a place where they cannot be disturbed.

Building the nest is a team exercise where the cob typically collects the materials for the nest while the pen organises the materials into a structure.

Once the nest is complete and is a safe home, the pen can begin laying eggs.

Female swans will lay eggs periodically and not all at one, but they begin the incubation when the last egg has been laid so all eggs can hatch at the same time. The eggs are a green brown colour and the pen can lay up to 8 eggs.

After 36 days the eggs will begin to hatch into cygnets.

The now parent swans will hunt and provide food for their young, the cygnets will also endeavour to capture insects as they venture out of the nest and follow their parents around the homestead.

As cygnets grow their grey baby feathers, turn to brown and then when they are fully grown (typically in the third year) their feathers turn white. Their bills turn to orange with a black knob appearing at the base below the eyes.

The cygnets stay with their parents until the following year, and when they are big enough, typically now supporting majority white feathers, they are encouraged to leave their home to find a mate at another location.

Life always finds a way, if the swans in our park can do it, so can we. I am just interested to know what the cob said to set his place in a lake of three ladies! Hopefully in the next year or so we will see some more cygnets from the new generation at our lake.