Bewick's Swan

Cygnus columbianus



Bewick's Swan is the smallest of the three swan species seen in the UK. The sexes are similar; both males and females have white plumage, but the juveniles are grey and have a bill that's dark at the tip then pink until its base, which is whitish. The bill darkens into yellow during the first winter. Adults have a black and yellow, wedge-shaped bill that's shorter than the Whooper Swan's, and though the rounded, yellow pattern is highly variable, it does not extend beyond the start of the nostrils. It's not uncommon for the neck and belly to become a stained orange, and when up-ending, the tail has a blunt end.


Bewick's Swan prefers low-lying wet pastures, flooded grasslands, saltmarshes, lakes and reservoirs. This bird visits in the winter and usually goes to traditional sites with thousands of birds. Its migration can be affected by weather, in which case some dispersal occurs, or alternatively, an influx from mainland Europe.


This swan is usually part of a medium-sized flock and it often stays in its family group, which remains unified throughout the winter stay. Generally it feeds in water less than 1m deep, and also on saltmarshes and arable fields. It prefers to roost on water and its search for food often continues through the night.


This bird has a diet of leaves, shoots and roots of pond weeds, milfoil, floating sweet grass, marsh foxtail, marsh yellow-cress and other aquatic plants, and rye grass and clover. Bewick's Swan can be a scavenger of sorts, visiting farmland to feed on potatoes, carrots and winter wheat.


Bewick's Swan does not breed in Britain or Ireland, instead opting for the low, swampy areas of the Russian tundra. It nests further north than other swans, and its breeding cycle needs to be completed in 100-110 days, before the Arctic climate grows too severe. Breeding usually starts between 4 and 6 years old and it is rare for pairs to part. Family groups stay together for the winter and transit to their breeding grounds as a unit.


These swans depart Siberia in the first weeks of September and arrive in Britain mid-October. From then there are around 7 000 individuals in the UK and a further 300 in Ireland - most leave before the end of March.

Observation Tips

Bewick's Swan appears similar to the larger Whooper Swan but is distinguishable with care. Some top viewing places include the Ouse Washes (Welney in particular) and Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.


It has a deep, gentle yelp that sounds like 'oop, oop', and it also makes various honking sounds.