Bird of the Month February: Mute Swan
My bird of the month for February is the mute swan. Here’s why:
Swans have been really visible this month. At the start of the month the pond near us, at Tweedbank, was frozen solid and the swans stood awkwardly on top of the ice. I always think swans look funny standing. They are so elegant on the water and so powerful in flight but just a bit clown-like on their feet (and my goodness, they have massive feet). And then the snow came and doused the countryside in swan-coloured glory. Then the snow melted and huge expanses of water formed in the fields. Swans love a good flooded field to feed in. It provides them with the access they need to water and good feeding ground. There’s something really lovely about the elegant S shapes of their necks bent over feeding in the soft colours of a February field in the low winter light. I’ve seen a couple of groups of swans flying overhead, presumably en-route to new feeding grounds, and oh my! Isn’t a swan in flight just the most incredible sight? They are our heaviest flying birds and the sheer bulk of them in the air above your head is mind-blowing. Apparently you can hear that ‘whoosh-whoosh-whoosh’ of their wing-beats up to a mile away. It is impossible not to stare upwards in awe.
Swans are thought of as a symbol of romance, and February contains Valentine’s Day, so they seemed like a good fit for this month. Mute swans mate for life. They build nests that are enormous piles of vegetation. Apparently the cob (male) provides the building materials and the pen (female) piles it all up into the gigantic nest-palace. Cobs are hugely protective of their partner, the nests and their young. This aggression is something that most of us have encountered at some point. They hiss, and arch their wings, and move with alarming pace toward the intruder. Our old dog, Buddy, was terrified of them (rightly so). We have a family legend about my Auntie Molly almost losing her arm inside the furious beak of a male swan.
Mute swans are our only resident swans. There are others – whoopers and Bewicks – who join us for the winter months before returning to their breeding grounds. Whoopers leave in the spring and fly all the way to Iceland in one journey. But the mutes stay here and for that reason deserve to be celebrated. The mute swan is recognisable from its orange bill with a large black knob at the base. The Bewick and whooper swans have yellower beaks. We saw whooper swans on the pond this winter. They are reasonably easy to tell apart up close but I find it almost impossible when they are in flight.
Mute swans have a peculiar place in British society. Since the 13th century there has been a Royal Keeper of Swans (split into two roles in the 1970s: the Warden of the Swans and the Marker of the Swans) who conducts an annual census of the swans on the Thames and marks their beaks. That fact is so eccentric and bizarre that it reflects something of the specialness we see in swans. (Note: it isn’t treason to kill a swan, that seems to be a myth. Don’t do it though.) Swans are rich figures in literature and mythology, from the Ugly Duckling through to Zeus transforming himself into a swan to seduce Leda. They are birds that capture the imagination. Dream-like, other-worldly.
The swan has a special meaning in our house as it is the only creature that Pig will mimic the sound of. Other toddlers start with a sheep ‘baaaaa’ or a cow ‘moooo’ or a ‘quack’ or a ‘woof’. Not our Pig. He started with a swan ‘hooooonk’ and hasn’t moved on. He makes the noise on the inhale. It is very good and we didn’t teach him it. He likes going to see the swans at the pond. I don’t let him feed bread to the ducks and the swans as there are lots of people doing that already and bread really isn’t very good for them in large quantities. I must get my act together and either buy some wildfowl food or remember to take grains, sweetcorn, lettuce or potatoes with us. He can’t be the only toddler without food to throw.
Those are the reasons why the mute swan is my bird of the month for February. They inhabit the rich world of royalty and mythology, but also your local duck pond. They are ethereal and elegant, heavy and cumbersome, startlingly white, fearsome and graceful. I like them a lot.