Swans are serene creatures, gliding gracefully on the water’s surface. They are the largest species of waterfowl, those birds living on or close to water. Waterfowl includes swans, ducks and geese. It is common to see families feeding swans in local parks and by other waterways. But what do swans eat in the wild and what can you feed them? Let’s find out!
What Is A Swan?
Swans are large waterfowl species, found on ponds, marches, rivers and lakes. They are graceful birds, with large white bodies, long necks and wide webbed feet.
As well as being the largest species of waterfowl, swans are also one of the largest flying birds, with a wingspan of up to 12ft depending on the species.
Swans are also migratory, either north to south within their native country, or between the northern and southern hemispheres. Migration precedes the breeding season, as swans fly thousands of miles to more fertile breeding grounds. What do swans eat to stay strong and cover such long distances? Read on!
North American Swans
There are two native species in north America; the trumpeter swan and the tundra swan. These two species are very difficult to distinguish, as their beaks are very similar. Tundra swans are smaller and have a small yellow patch just below the eyes.
Fun fact: The trumpeter swan is the largest species, weighing up to 13kg!
Swans are not sexually dimorphic, meaning both male and female look the same. Males are slightly larger and heavier than females.
North American swans are found right across coast to coast, from Washington to New York and north into Canada and the Arctic. Swans are less commonly seen in warm southern states.
There are populations around all major waterways, as well as local parks and golf courses. People can spot swans foraging among reeds or ducking below the water surface to feed on aquatic plant life.
The most famous Eurasian swan is the mute swan. They are easily distinguishable by their bright orange bill and black bulge just below the eyes.
Mute swans have a loud honking call and are typically only vocal during the breeding season when they are courting mates or protecting young.
Fun fact: Swans mate for life unless a partner dies or the female lays no eggs.
In the UK, the Queen owns all unmarked mute swans found in open water. Hunting and eating of unmarked swans is illegal, with the exception of the fellows of St John’s in Cambridge. The fine for killing a swan in the UK is up to £5000.
Other Eurasian species include the bewick’s swan and whooper swan. Bewick’s swans are the smallest species, spending the winter months around the UK and France, returning north to the Arctic and Siberia for spring.
Whooper swans visit European countries from Iceland, migrating for the winter months and returning home to colder climates in time for spring blooms of fresh vegetation.
Also Read: What Do Swallows Eat?
What Do Swans Eat?
Swans are herbivorous birds, feeding on aquatic vegetation, insect and occasionally land vegetation. The majority of a swan’s diet is aquatic plants such as pondweed, milfoil, hornwort, foxtail and green algae.
Cygnets (juvenile swans) will also consume a small amount of aquatic insects such as water beetles and pond skaters, tadpoles, small fish, frog and toad eggs. Adult swans will also unintentionally eat insects that are living or feeding off the vegetation the swan is eating.
If you wish to feed swans, there are certain rules to follow. Firstly, don’t feed them bread. While it is a popular activity for children, swans cannot digest bread and it can cause them to gain weight.
Fun fact: Swans are graceful foragers in the water, but very clumsy on land!
The best food to offer swans is rolled oats, which you can purchase cheaply at any supermarket. You can also feed them cracked corn. This type of corn has been ground into small pieces which makes it safer for swans to eat than untouched corn kernels.
You can also feed diced potato or lettuce if you have left over vegetables. These are high in proteins, carbohydrates and essential vitamins. The best times to feed swans is during winter when there is less vegetation and the water surface freezes over.
Social Behaviour & Breeding
Most swans are monogamous, forming strong pair bonds as juveniles, although swans do not reach sexual maturity until 4 or 5 years of age. During courtship, a bonded pair will reinforce their relationship by dancing. This involves synchronised head bobbing, wing flapping and vocalisations.
A bonded pair may ‘divorce’ if they fail to breed for one year or more. Also, in the event that one swan dies, the surviving swan will search for a new mate.
Swans are fiercely protective of their nest and chicks. They are often seen chasing or flying at dogs and even people during the nesting season if they wander too close to the water’s edge.
Eggs hatch in June and July. Cygnets are small, grey and adorably fluffy. For the first few weeks they will stay close to their parents, even resting under their mother’s wings as she floats on the water. From the tender age of just 2 weeks, cygnets can feed on their own. By 10 weeks old, cygnets are already around half their adult size.
They will start taking short practice flights in September to prepare for their winter migration, which can be thousands of miles.
Swans do not have many natural predators. The main threats they face are foxes and raccoons, particularly for the newly hatched cygnets. Predators tend to wait until one parent has moved away to feed as swans can be highly aggressive when protecting their young.
In some Eurasian countries, swans are hunted for their meat and feathers. Swan hunting is banned in the UK and France. Germany allows hunting but all hunters must have a license and hunt only in designated areas and within the hunting season.
Most species of swan are not considered endangered, however, the numbers of tundra and bewick’s swans are slowly decreasing. This is due to several factors, including competition with larger species, pollution and loss of habitat due to expansion of human settlements or agricultural land.