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Black Swans

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A black swan swimming.

The black swan is the state bird of Western Australia, and they are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act (1974) covering the whole of Australia. Although black swans are indigenous to Australia, some have turned up in other places like Scotland, the Boating Lake in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, the famous Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, Southampton's Riverside Park, and the river Exe, Devon, in the UK. The black swan symbol has appeared on postage stamps of various places such as Christmas Island and Cuba, as well as Western Australia. It is also on the state flag of Western Australia.

The first black swan to be brought to the UK was in 1791 for a private collection. It wasn't long before black swans became popular attractions in zoos and wildlife parks. Some birds would have escaped captivity to breed in the wild, if they were lucky enough to find a compatible partner. Fast-forward to the 21st Century and there were 37 breeding pairs recorded in the UK in 2012, so they're not exactly prolific. Solo black swans turning up unexpectedly at water parks and boating lakes are probably one-year-old cygnets which have been evicted by their parents. Once accepted, the newcomer will live quite happily with their cousins - geese, ducks and white mute swans, which are somewhat larger than their antipodean relatives.

It's not known exactly how many individual birds there are globally but a conservative estimate is somewhere between half a million and a million. At the time of writing, the black swan Cygnus atratus has been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Least Concern.

Black Magic

The Latin name for swan is cygnus. Cygnus is a cross-shaped constellation of stars in the Northern Hemisphere, which was named after the graceful swan in antiquity.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Anseriformes
  • Family: Anatidae (waterfowl that includes ducks, geese and swans)
  • Genus: Cygnus
  • Species: Cygnus atratus
Black swan under full moon.Black swan at Cleethorpes

Although they are called 'black' swans, they're not completely black. Their beaks are red with a horizontal stripe of a paler colour, looking like a chunk has been carved out of the top bill. Its flight feathers are white but they're well camouflaged when the bird is swimming, diving, walking and at rest. Black swans have a long neck which curves to form an 'S' shape. They can feed by siphoning insects from surface water, dipping their beaks underwater for vegetation and can 'up-end' in deeper water for tastier morsels. It's not the most graceful of poses but it provides amusement for travelling twitchers1. Like other swans, black swans can walk about on land but they have to land on water after a flight, they won't land on land or they would risk injury.

Black swan, or at least, its back end. The rest is in the water.

They can be quite vocal, trumpeting their displeasure loudly, and they make chittering sounds when communicating pleasure. If you are incredibly lucky enough to have a black swan trust you, it will accept seed from the palm of your hand. What a privilege it is to witness such a creature participating in a feeding ritual with a human, and the black swan responding to the soothing human voice, as if it knows no harm is intended.

Family

Male swans are called cobs, females are known as pens, and their offspring are cygnets. Once paired up, they are mates for life. They are ground-nesting birds so will choose somewhere secluded to build a nest. After mating, the female will lay up to eight eggs then both adults take turns incubating them. Just over a month later, all being well, they'll have a brood of dusky grey cygnets who will stay with their parents until fully grown, which takes up to a year. The cob then evicts them so he and his partner can do it all over again, using the same nest, renovating or repairing it if necessary. If the first batch of eggs fails for whatever reason2, the pair will mate again - a process called double clutching. A solo black swan has been known to mate with a mute white swan. Their offspring (called blutes) were grey and white. As they were hybrids, it's doubtful they were fertile.

Dawlish

The first two black swans in Dawlish in Devon, UK, were brought to the town from New Zealand in 1907. They obviously loved their new surroundings because they bred once they became acclimatised. The people of Dawlish are so proud of their black swan residents that they have produced many tourist souvenirs of them, including teatowels, mugs and thimbles. Unfortunately, an outbreak of Avian 'flu in 2020 killed 11 of the precious flock. A fundraiser was organised to replenish the population and a breeding pair of black swans was purchased. If you're nowhere near Dawlish to see them yourself, don't worry, there's a black swan cam for you to enjoy their activities from the comfort of your own home.

Black Swan thimble by Galaxy Babe.

White Black Swans

Some black swans have white feathers, but they aren't albinos, they are a genetic aberration (leucistic). It's just a lack of pigment, and it doesn't make the black swan any less beautiful. As far as we know, there is only one completely white-feathered black swan in the world, and it has lived in Tasmania since 2007. Even though it is against the law to shoot wildlife at any of the Great Lakes in Tasmania, in 2021 someone shot this precious bird eight times, injuring it so badly that it couldn't fly. No doubt it would have died, but luckily it was rescued and restored to health by caring humans.

Platinum Jubilee Black Swan

During Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee celebrations in London in early June 2022, eagle-eyed television viewers were jubilant to spot a black swan on the lake in St James' Park when Kirsty Young was interviewing a troupe of celebrities, including Twiggy, Lulu and Sir Cliff Richard, about their memories of meeting HM the Queen.

1Avid bird-watchers.2Egg thieves abound; nature provides a bounty for other species like the fox, which will take eggs and cygnets. There are other dangers such as gulls and raptors, which will take other birds' chicks, but the predators shouldn't be demonised as they have their own families to feed.

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