For the last few months, I’ve been playing a super fun game of Dungeons and Dragons (I know, I’m a nerd). One of my characters is a Swanmay – a race that can turn into a swan at will. So when I was trying to think of a bird to write about today, the D & D session from last night came to mind, and so did swans.

Swans are members of the family Anatidae, along with ducks and geese. There are six species of swan, four in the Northern Hemisphere, one in Australia and New Zealand, and one in South America. They are water birds, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find a swan away from a source of water for long. The exact habitat varies by species, but most tend to stick around ponds, freshwater lakes, and swamps.

A black swan. I actually think they look cooler than the white varieties.
Image by fir0002 flagstaffotos [at] Canon 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who has ever seen a swan knows, swans are big. They are the largest waterfowl, and are also some of the largest flying birds in the world. The bigger species of swans can reach over 1.5 meters in length, with wingspans of 3 meters. Swans can weigh over 15 kilograms, which is a lot of weight to carry in flight. Not all swans have typical all-white feathering – the two southern species have a combination of black and white feathers. The Australian species is completely black save for a few feathers on its wings; this has earned it the name ‘black swan’. Named just as creatively, the black-necked swan has an all-white body with a black neck.

I would have guessed that swans are fish eaters, because I just assume that all water birds are. That’s not true, however, as swans are herbivorous birds. They feed on root and leaves of aquatic plants. Have you ever watched a swan stick its butt in the air and dive underwater? That’s when it’s searching for food to eat. I’ve always thought it a little strange that a graceful bird like the swan would forage in such an undignified way, but who am I to judge?

A pen (female swan) with her cygnets (baby swans). Male swans are known as cobs.
Image by Daniel Grothe from Dortmund, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Swans form very strong pair bonds that last for life, unless one of the pair dies or numerous nest failures occur. They become sexually mature at 4-7 years of age, but can form bonds much earlier, as early as 20 months of age. Both members of the pair help construct the nest, which is built on the ground near a source of water and can be over a meter across. Female swans lay between 4 and 7 eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of 34-45 days. They are very aggressive around their nests, so don’t approach nesting swans. It is rumoured that a man drowned after getting too close to a swan nest.

One last comment: the sounds swans make are very loud and obnoxious. I play a video of them every time I transform into a swan in D & D, much to the annoyance of the rest of our group. Anyway, swans are neat birds, I’ve always enjoyed watching them swim around, and now I’m glad I know more about them!

Cover image by Alessandro Vellere, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons