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Cygnus olor – mute swans

6 January 2012

When the sea comes in at Horsey Gap
Without any previous warning,
A swan shall build its rushy nest
On the roof of the Swan at Horning.
And a bald headed crow, contented and merry,
Shall feast on the corpses that float by the ferry.

Anonymous Norfolk rhyme.

Recently I met a lady who spends much of her free time in retirement with her husband, monitoring 15 pairs of mute swans (they only hiss), Cygnus olor, (see photograph above at Cley in Norfolk) up in Lancashire. They have, along with other volunteers, been following swans there for about twenty years. I think this is very exciting (easily excited!) as with the data they collect that means there is a large body of material for studying populations of swans and finding out interesting things. Mute swans do mate for life and are very territorial, so you can follow families in an area over the lifetime of the birds. Swans suffer from the hand of man through vandalism, pollution, for example fishing line and hooks, and also when young are vulnerable to various predators. She said fishermen reported crows predating on whole broods of approximately two week old cygnets.

They can be quite aggressive, even to the point of driving away prospective mates which is interesting, as well as having a mutual hostility with geese. This swan, Rambo from Blackburn lived to 30, whereas they generally live about 12 years!

The winter of 2010-11 was fairly severe for the UK and as the swans are resident they were particularly badly hit, being unable to feed properly. Many died across the British Isles as a consequence –

A particularly interesting thing she told me was that as the egs were developing in females who were suffering from poor nutrition, many of the cygnets were undersized and much smaller than would normally be the case (having surely developed from undersized eggs). It would be interesting to see if they remain small or if they do achieve a more normal size. I imagine also that the 2009 cygnets who would mature over the winter were also more likely to die being less experienced than the adults at finding food. Sad to see the role moronic humans have in destroying eggs and attacking adults.

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

Orlando Gibbons

Good luck to the poor swans!

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