Mute Swan

Cygnus olor



The swan is a large water bird, known for the graceful S-curve of its long neck. The adult has white plumage, though orange can permeate the crown, and the tail is pointed. The bill is an orange-red, a colour which is more vivid in the male, and a black knob at the base of the bill is larger in the male. Juveniles have a pinkish-grey bill and are a dull grey-brown, usually whitening by first autumn.


This is the most common and widespread swan, and is also the only one that is resident. It can be found around a variety of freshwater bodies and it builds its nests on the shore. During winter it can sometimes be found in shielded coastal areas.


These birds are usually territorial, though nesting colonies exist in small numbers. They waddle when on land and run along the surface of water in order to take flight. Whilst in flight, the neck is extended; the expansive wingspan gives off shallow yet powerful wing beats which omit a distinctive pulsing whine. Flocks fly in diagonal lines. When aggressive, the bird arches its wings and draws in its neck, then advances across the water quickly; its movements can appear spasmodic.


The Mute Swan eats aquatic plants and other vegetation including stonewort, starwort, hornwort, water crow-foot, various pondweeds, soft grass and algae. Insects and small animals such as snails can also be part of the diet, as well as a variety of foods offered by humans. It most commonly feeds by dipping its head into the water, sometimes upending to search in the grit at river bottoms.


These birds usually partner for life. They begin breeding at 3 or 4 years in late winter. Characteristics of breeding included dipped heads moving in synchronised fashion and necks and breasts pressed together. Females lay 5-7 eggs which are incubated by her and guarded by the male for 34-45 days. Cygnets feed themselves and begin to fly after 120-150 days.


There are an estimated 6 400 pairs in the UK and 2 500 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

These birds are easy to watch and identify and are generally tolerant of human observers. In springtime, cygnets can often be observed in their family groups, accompanied by parents.


Generally a quiet bird, the Mute Swan does omit a variety of snorting and grunting sounds on occasion. It also has a fierce hiss when it's angry, and juvenile birds make a high-pitched whistle.