The Hudson Valley-New York City area has the distinction of being the place mute swans were introduced into the New World, by the landed gentry and town fathers of the region. This distinction was dubious to less royally loyal Americans, who saw swans not as reminders of genteel civilization, but as pesky pests - mean bully birds that drove off more delectable ducks and geese. This territorial takeover advanced as swans spread into the wild. Today there are at least 3,000 wild swans in New York, about a fifth of the 15,000 or so in the United States.
The mute swan is not really mute, just quiet, muttering soft croaks to each other, hissing or hoarsely squawking when approached. The loudest noise this bird makes is the steady whooshing of its wings when taking flight from the water of a lake or pond, an impressive display, as shown here. The slow takeoff is deceptive; swans can reach or exceed 50 miles per hour in full flight. But 20 pounds or more is a burdensome lift-off, requiring very strong wings. A blow from a swan's wing is said to be capable of breaking a human limb. This seems impossible to verify, but the idea probably has some basis in painful experience.
Swans live a long time for birds, up to 30 or 40 years in captivity, though wild ones of about 20 years are the oldest known. The common romantic notion that swans "mate for life" is exaggerated. Couples do stay together for several or many years, but if one dies, the other usually finds a partner for the next season's breeding. Only occasionally do swans break up and change mates, so the legend is nearly true. When a swan remarries, the older partner, male or female, is the boss.
Young swans are not the "ugly ducklings" of the fairy tale, except perhaps when undergoing the change from fluffy juvenile to sleek adult plumage that all birds go through. Broods normally number six to 12, hatching from pale green to bluish eggs in a huge nest, four to five feet wide. Little swans are called cygnets, from the same Greek root as Cygnus, the summer constellation shaped like a swan. Like ducklings and goslings, cygnets follow their parents everywhere until they nearly equal mom and dad in size. Dads that cross territories engage in ritual fights called "busking." No street singing is involved, and no violence, just puffed-up face-offs and clumsy dancing.
Swans are vegetarians, eating soft aquatic plants, which they uproot from the bottom. One adult can eat five to eight pounds of vegetation in a day. Where swans are numerous, as in Maryland for example, their grazing has decreased food and cover for other animals, such as crabs, fish and other birds. In most parts of the country swans are not abundant, and do little environmental damage.
Swans are normally calm and shy, but this composure can change during the breeding season, especially if competition for nesting sites is high. At such times swans may drive away other birds, including rare species such as black skimmers and least terns, as they have in Maryland. They are reported to even kill ducks and geese, and take over their territories.
Not surprisingly, adult swans have few natural enemies, but eggs and young are taken by predators. Raccoons, which love birds' eggs, rarely get hold of a nice, big swan's egg. The parents are too diligent by day, and sit on the eggs at night, when raccoons are most active. Large snapping turtles snatch floating cygnets from below, thwarting any protective efforts of the parents. On land a few young swans may be taken by stealthy foxes and coyotes.
All this month swans have been migrating through the area, and congregating on local lakes and ponds. A few of these migrants settle in these parts to raise families, but we have yet to find a nest this year. One day we counted 18 swans in the south end of the Great Vly in Saugerties. They seemed to be enjoying each other's company. When we got too close, they took flight, though not all at once, flew right over us, circled around and headed north. But in a while, as we were paddling north, we saw them flying in again to land where they had been before. ++