Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces his next in a series of informative articles.

Image by Peter Hagger

Local birdwatchers do not seem to take much interest in our mainly resident swans, almost as if they are not real wild birds. They are ever present on most pits throughout the year, one interesting feature in recent years has been a late summer non-breeding flock of mute swans on Heronry North. The origin of these birds remains obscure. In total we seem to have a resident population of about 100 birds-with about 10-15 pairs breeding-or attempting to breed each year. This year a pair had a family on the river near The Moorings, which include a pure white cygnet, which used to be called a Polish Swan (no idea why??).

I have been looking into the history of mute Swans in Britain and I have failed to come up with a positive date when they arrived here.  One idea is that they were brought here by Richard the first from Cyprus in 1192. Almost certainly not true! They seem to have been well distributed across England by 1250.  Peat diggings in the Broads area has turned up Mute Swans bones and so it seems possible that our Swans were here in small numbers way back in pre-history.

Some birds may have been taken into captivity and so maybe the wild stock became extinct? We shall never really know the answer.

Overseas, it is numerous across Central Europe from The Netherlands to the Danube Delta and across Asia to Mongolia. It can also be found in small numbers in North Africa and the Middle East.

It is also one of the most “introduced” birds in the world, being found in the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. These introduced birds are resident, but it is thought that some Mute Swans may also be winter visitors to East Anglia during periods of very cold weather, perhaps from the very large Dutch population. This is unproven.

Mute swans by Peter Hagger

The main reason for man’s interest in Swans is twofold. Firstly, as a valuable source of food. Before chicken and turkey became fashionable for Christmas dinner, the Goose and Swan were the birds of choice for grand formal dinners for the rich and famous. Secondly, Swan feathers and down were much in demand in the plumage markets of London and elsewhere.

During the period from 1820 onwards around 108,000 Swan skins were traded on the London markets (not all being mute Swans).

Cygnets were raised in Swan pits, the most famous being in Norwich where up to 100 birds at a time would be fattened up before being killed and sent to markets.

In the wild today, the only threat to mute Swan is man and as late as the 1988-1990 period, Swans were being badly affected by lead poisoning from discarded lead weights left by the anglers.

As semi-wild birds, most mute Swans in the UK are “owned” by the crown, hence the famous Swan upping held on the Thames each year to mark young birds.  However, the Swans at the world famous Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset are owned by the land owner-usually about 50 pairs nest here, but in winter the population can rise to over 800 birds.

More locally the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Welney is home to many thousands of Swans each winter, when our residents are joined by wintering Whooper Swans from Iceland.

So, when you next visit the reserve, stop and say “Hello” to our mute Swan families. They have the most interesting histories of any British bird. Enjoy!

Answer to question: Only Mute Swans have creaking wings. They are sometimes called Silent Creaking Swans!

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