MUTE SWANS

Prized for their Beauty and Grace
Mute Swans are the Largest Bird in Our Area.

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BODY
In some reference sources, males (cobs) are considered larger than females (pens). Other sources state the reverse.
In any case, the weight statistics on mute swans range from 19 to 26 pounds.
They have wing spans from 6 to 8 feet wide.
Because of their mass they require long and strong feathers.
Their outer wing feathers can be up to 18 inches long and weigh a half an ounce.

The overall appearance of both sexes of the mute swan is the same.
They have short black legs and feet and their plumage is entirely white with fluffy back feathers.
The adult mute has an orange bill with black base, lores and knob above the bill.
The female's knob is usually smaller than the male's.
Like all swans, they have long necks, but characteristically mutes hold their necks in an "S" curve when at rest.
The migratory tundra swan, which is the only other swan in the Atlantic flyway, holds its neck straight and has a simple black bill.

BABIES
Young swans are called cygnets.
Mute cygnets are either grayish brown with slate gray legs and feet or white with grey legs and tan/pink feet.
The grey versions have slate colored bills and the white ones have tan bills.
All cygnets lack the basal knob on their bills. After 12 months the young will have their adult plumage.
After 5 weeks of incubation the cygnets hatch and begin to swim within a day or two.
They are protected by their parents for their first few months.
They are independent in about 18 weeks and fully grown at 6 months.
They are ready to fly in 4 to 5 months and they may leave their home territory.
In any case, they will be driven off by their parents before the next breeding season.
Many cygnets die during their first year, mostly due to flying accidents.
It has been speculated by Betty Conley, a local wildlife rehabilitator, that the Oak Beach area mute swan population consists of immature, non-breeding birds.

DATING
Mute swans reach sexual maturity at 3 years.
In the spring the pair constructs a huge nest (4-6 feet in diameter) of rushes, coarse grasses and feathers about 1.5 feet above the high tide mark.
The nest is always near the water because swans are not good walkers.
The pen will lay a clutch of 3 to 10 greenish-grey eggs at 2 day intervals.
Incubation starts when the last egg is laid and will take 35 days.
The pen will do most of the nest tending and incubation while the cob zealously protects the area.
In breeding season cobs will become very aggressive toward any intruders, whether other water fowl, pets or humans.
They have been known to fight to the death with other swans.
They can inflict serious blows with their wings but don't bite, despite opinion to the contrary.
Generally a mute pen lays its eggs only once a year but if the nest is disturbed, and the eggs lost, there may be a second nesting attempt.
A mute swan pair will usually remain together until one member dies and the remaining member selects another mate.
There are instances of swans "divorcing" and choosing new mates but research shows that the most successful breeders are established pairs.
A pair will normally use the same nesting site for many years.

Adult mute swans molt their feathers yearly and can't fly during the process.
Females usually molt in July and the males delay their molting until their mates have started flying again.
Once mute swans reach breeding age their mortality rate is low.
Their life expectancy is at least 11 years with many living more than 20 years and some to 50 years.

FOOD
Mute swans feed on submerged aquatic vegetation primarily. However, they will eat grain crops.
And, they have been known to eat amphibians, fish, mollusks, and insects.
Cygnets will eat aquatic invertebrates for their first month.
Widgeon grass, eel grass, and various pondweeds make up all but 2% of the mute swan diet.
Adult mutes consume up to 8 pounds of plant material each day.
They forage by dunking their heads and bills beneath the water and they can grab and pull out submerged vegetation in 6 feet of water.
They pull up plants by the roots or they paddle furiously to dislodge plants for themselves or their young.
Swans have powerful gizzards which allow them to grind up plants during digestion.
Also, the grains of soil which they ingest help to break down the food before it is absorbed into the bloodstream.

HOMELAND
The North American mute swan range extends from Massachusetts to Southern Maryland.
The population of this introduced species exploded by 1200% in the last 13 years of the 20th century.
In some areas the overpopulation of mute swans has caused problems for native waterbirds.
There is evidence that mute swans have taken over other waterbirds' territories, smashed eggs, and aggressively evicted the historical nesters like black skimmers and least terns.
Also, these large swans have depleted the submerged aquatic vegetation due to their year-round foraging.
Before the swans took over, most of the aquatic plants had a chance to reproduce and grow while the migratory waterbirds were absent.
The heavy grazing and habitat degradation by the mute swans may be the cause of a decline in the population of ducks and other waterbirds.

Large concentrations of mute swans and other water fowl can contribute to water quality degradation as these year-round permanent residents defecate in the water.
On Long Island elevated coliform bacteria counts have been found in areas where mute swans congregate.
Coliform counts are used to determine whether the water may be deemed safe for shellfishing and swimming.
Nutrient loading can cause dangerous algal blooms where the aquatic vegetation has been removed by the mute swans.

CURRENT SITUATION
With the serious concerns that are connected with the overpopulation of mute swans, it seems strange that these large birds are protected in New York State. That is, they may not be hunted or harmed.
Attempts at control through shaking eggs require permits and have been limited.
In the Chesapeake Bay area, there were real economic and ecological considerations which prompted the State of Maryland to enact measures to control mute swans.
Subsequently, a law suit was filed and the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC ruled that mute swans were covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and therefore the Maryland law was voided.
With that ruling the management of mute swans was put under the authority of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
States that have regulations for mute swans will have to modify them to come into compliance with the USFWS.

There is no question that mute swans are beautiful and impressive.
Many of us grew up visiting local ponds and lakes to watch and enjoy these magnificent birds.
Perhaps, it is because of that remembered sentiment that has kept government officials from adopting necessary mute swan control measures.
We can do our part by not feeding swans and encouraging others to do the same.

PLEASE!
Preserve and Protect our Beaches.

Thanks to Sallie Phillips, 1 / 2003

@ 2006 Save the Beaches Fund, Inc.

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