Mute Swan

Cygnus olor

Mute swans breed in the British Isles, north central Europe and north central Asia. They winter as far south as North Africa, the Near East, and to northwest India and Korea. They have been successfully introduced in North America, where they are a widespread species and permanent residents in many areas. Although this bird can be tame, especially to those who feed it daily, it is aggressive in defence of its nest, and its size and impressive hissing make it a formidable adversary for animals as large as a fox. The male (“cob”) is also responsible for defending the cygnets while on the water, and will sometimes attack small watercraft, such as jet skis or canoes, that it feels are a threat to its young.

All Mute Swans in the UK (with the possible exception of those in Orkney and Shetland) are considered the property of the British monarch, except for flocks owned by the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies.

Flight feathers from the female swan (“pen”) were used as writing implements then known as “pen quills” and later as “quill pens”, until the “quill” was left out and only the word “pen” remained. So our present-day ballpoint pens, etc., take their name from the female swan!

The phrase “swan song” refers to this swan and to the legend that it is utterly silent until the last moment of its life, and then sings one achingly beautiful song just before dying. In reality, the Mute Swan is not completely silent, but has a kind of guttural warning call it will give when approached.

Socrates’ last words before being put to death in 399 BC were: “You think I cannot see as far ahead as a swan. You know that when swans feel the approach of death they sing, and they sing sweeter and louder on the last days of their lives because they are going back to that God whom they serve.” (Plato)

Olor means “swan” in Latin. Cygnus is the Latinized form of Greek kyknos, which also means “swan”.

Picture taken in Zaanse Schans, the Netherlands, in August 2005.

Genus Cygnus
Tribe Anserini
Subfamily Anserinae
Family Anatidae
Order Anseriformes
Class Aves
Subphylum Vertebrata
Phylum Chordata
Kingdom Animalia
Life on Earth