Whooper Swan

Cygnus cygnus



This is a large water bird that is similar in size to the Mute Swan. Some key differences to note are the bill shape and colour. The Whooper Swan's bill is longer and more triangular, sometimes described as 'Roman-nosed', and it has a bright yellow patch that extends beyond the nostril, ending in a point. Its body is longer body and its wingspan wider than the Bewick's Swan. The adult is almost a pure white, though in spring and summer individual birds can have orange-stained upper necks and heads. The immature Whooper Swan has grey plumage that lightens in winter; it keeps some grey feathers until its second winter. Its bill is reddish-grey until the characteristic yellow takes over. Juveniles are grubby grey and have pale pink bills which darken on the tip. The Whooper Swan typically holds its long, thin neck straight rather than curved, though it has a clear kink at the base. Its tail is square-shaped when it upends.


A few wild pairs stay in northern Britain each year, but for the most part, the Whooper Swan is a visitor in the winter from October to March. Several thousand birds arrive at this time, mostly from the tundra breeding grounds of Iceland. They inhabit a range of varying environments in Britain including lowland coastal farms, flooded meadows and lakeside marshes. Many return to traditional sites each autumn.


Whooper Swans can usually be found in medium-sized winter flocks, though they're not colonial when nesting. The flocks consist of family units and non-breeders. When flying, the bird's head and neck is extended. It roosts during the night on open water and its primary breeding conditions are boggy areas with pools, often with easily accessible vegetation.


This swan prefers to feed during the day in shallow water or on land. Its diet is varied, including pondweed, stonewort, marsh yellow-cress, horsetail and water snails. On farmland it eats potatoes, grain, grass and winter cereals.


The Whooper Swan doesn't nest until it is 4 or 5 years old and most pairs stay together until death. They build a nest cooperatively, usually close to water, and the female lays 3-8 eggs once the ice has melted. She incubates them for 35 days and both parents tend to the young. After about 87 days, the young can fly, but they stay with their parents for their first autumn and winter, and remain with the family to begin the return migration.


Approximately 15 000 Whooper Swans spend winter in the UK and 12 000 in Ireland. Generally they are found further north than Bewick's Swan.

Observation Tips

These birds can loosely mingle with other swan species, so it's best not to assume that winter flocks contain only one species. Welney in Cambridgeshire has been known to provide watching points or Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth.


It makes a blaring trumpeting or whooping sound.