The Queen’s Bird – The Mute Swan

The mute swan, Cygnus olor, is the UK’s well known resident swan species, with its white plumage, long neck, orange bill with characteristic black knob, and a wingspan of over 2 m making them easily recognisable. There are around 7,000 breeding pairs throughout the UK, and they can be found from quiet rural estuaries to lakes in bustling city parks. Male swans, known as cobs, will find a female, known as pens, and will stay with this mate for life, unless one was unfortunately to perish. Nests are constructed from a variety of vegetation, including reeds, and are several metres in width. Usually five to seven eggs are laid and when hatched the cygnets can often be seen riding safely on their parent’s back.

In the 12th century all unmarked mute swans were claimed by the Crown, as cygnets were a desired banquet dish. The annual event of Swan Upping occurred every July, allowing cygnets to be claimed by those who owned the adult birds which were identified through patterns cut into the swan’s upper mandible, with different owners having a unique mark. Some cygnets were then released to continue the population and others were taken for fattening, eventually reaching the banquet table.

Presently the Crown still holds all ownership rights to unmarked birds upon open water. Ownership is now only implemented on parts of the Thames and its tributaries, with the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners sharing ownership (granted to them in the 15th century). The swans at Abbotsbury, Dorset are the only other owned birds. Now however mute swans are appreciated for their beauty, and are no longer eaten. The annual Swan Upping still continues but now focuses on conservation with cygnets being assessed for injuries, weighed, measured and fitted with a ring. All data goes towards vital conservation of this species.

Past threats to the survival of the mute swan included the polluting of waterways, especially by lead fishing weights, although sales of these items are now banned. Problems now revolve around the continued pressure for wildlife to share its environment with an expanding human population, with increased recreational activities and disturbance influencing breeding or conflicts occurring between humans and swans which are protecting their nests. However as one of the UK’s most loved and recognisable birds, having been placed 7th in the recent vote for Britain’s National Bird, it is likely the species will continue to thrive for years to come, especially with the protection of the land’s monarch.

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A Johnson
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