From Baby Cygnets To Fledglings and Beyond, Exploring The Fascinating World of Baby Swans
There is something romantic about swans. The way they present and dance with each other when mating. That they will often partner for life, and care for their family so deeply. So majestic are these birds, that in the UK the Queen – and now the King – owns all the swans across the land.
Baby swans, although similar in size to baby geese, are the largest babies of all the waterfowl. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t risks and threats along their journey to adulthood.
Here are some interesting baby swan facts, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions and some images of these elegant baby birds!
Baby Swan Facts
Baby Swans Are Called Cygnets
While most baby birds are called chicks, there are a few that like to be different. Much like the baby turkey or baby pigeons, the baby swan is one that likes to be different. These little things of beauty are called ‘cygnets‘. The word cygnet comes from the Old French word ‘cigne’ and the older word ‘cygnus’ in Latin. Funnily enough, the word translates literally as ‘swan’.
Before they become cygnets, they start their life in an egg within a ‘clutch‘ which is laid in a ‘nest‘. When they leave the egg they are ‘hatchlings‘.
As they grow up, a male swan is known as a ‘cob‘ and a female swan is a ‘pen‘.
There’s no specific collective noun for a group of baby swans. However, there are a few terms used to describe groups of swans in general. In flight, a group of swans is known as a ‘wedge‘, and in the water, they are collectively known as a ‘bevy‘. They may be known as a ‘flock‘ in both the air and the water.
Baby swans are found within the flock which usually contains a mix of many adults and any offspring. After spending their first six months or so very close to their parents, and a few months in their original flock, juvenile swans tend to start their own little flocks amongst their siblings.
Both Parents Are Involved In The Upbringing of Baby Swans
In a swan family, both parents are heavily involved in the roles of parents and guardians. Both the male cob and female pen will take turns incubating their eggs, while the other gets food and guards the nest. They will also both act as a ‘taxi cab’ for the young cygnets that will often ride on their parents back to get around and for protection.
Swans are known to mate for life, but in the event of one dying or failing to produce eggs, they will find new partners. Once the breeding season starts again, offspring from the previous season are usually chased away, encouraged to be independent. This makes space for the next clutch, which will become the sole focus of the parents.
Baby Swans Listen To Their Mothers Diligently – Imprinting
Once cygnets are hatched, cleaned of the waxy layer that protects them inside the egg, and ready for their first swim, the parents are at their most aggressive and protective of their offspring. These cygnets are fearless but also vulnerable.
It is at this stage that a cygnet is preparing itself to imprint on the adult that they will follow around instinctively for the rest of their childhood. Imprinting is essentially when a cygnet programs itself to follow one guardian based on the first large moving object that it sees. The parents are so protective at keeping intruders away at this time, as they need the imprinting to lock on to a parent and not a stranger.
The process can begin while the cygnet is still in the egg, getting used to various sounds that the parents make. Swans make unique sounds, much like we humans all have different voices. Parents get their young used to their sounds before they have even hatched. But it is on first sight that the programming is complete. Once imprinted, the cygnet will follow that responsible adult around for the next few months, relying on all the lessons they are taught for finding food and shelter.
To encourage imprinting on one of the parents, they often put their head up very close to their cygnets and make gentle noises. This ensures the first thing they see and attribute these sounds to, is their parent.
Baby Swans Can Sleep Anywhere
Baby swans can sleep on land, in water and even on one leg, which many do in the cold season. At first however, they tend to sleep in the soft down of their parents feathers. After this, they usually sleep in the water, which offers protection from land predators such as red foxes and dogs. They will sleep close to a parent, or on their body – back or wings – until they are safe to sleep in the water on their own.
The reason cygnets, and other birds sleep on one leg, is to reduce heat loss, particularly in cold temperatures. Legs, especially in water, are exposed to more cold as they don’t have feathers. To prevent heat loss, a swan will raise one leg into it’s feathers. They do this on land or in water to reduce the impact of the cold on exposed parts.
Parents Will Aggressively Defend Their Babies
Parents, particularly after a recent hatch of new offspring can be very aggressive to any potential threats or passers by. This, as mentioned above, is partly due to the instinctive behaviour around imprinting. However, even once imprinted, swans will protect their young with great vigilance.
One of the biggest threats to young cygnets is other male swans, who are often violent, territorial and bullish toward the young arrivals. They will at times quite freely kill the offspring of other swans. So parent cobs are very observant for any threats approaching and will spread their feathers and take on any aggressors head first.
Baby Swan Survival Rates Are Low
One of the reasons swans, for their size, have such large clutches of eggs, is that the survival rate of cygnets is quite low. A clutch may contain up to 6 eggs, but only around 50% of these will go on to reach 3 months after hatching. Another 25% will not reach adulthood, so only around a quarter will make it from their nest to become a part of their own flock.
The biggest threat to cygnets is the variety of predators on land, sea and air, waiting for an opportune moment. They are also, however, susceptible to a variety of parasites and diseases, some of which are seasonally more destructive than others. As such, cygnets born earlier in the season have a higher survival rate than those born later in the season.
If they are lucky enough to reach adulthood they can live rather long lives, up to around 20-25 years in the wild. This does vary depending on location, availability of food and shelter, and on the breed.
Baby Swan FAQs
What Is The Lifecycle Of A Baby Swan?
It can take two to three weeks for a mother pen to lay all of her eggs. Once the task is complete, the incubation period is usually around 35-41 days. The eggs then start to hatch but it is not a quick process. They will usually all break free of their shells over 24 -48 hours.
Baby swans, or cygnets, are born with a lot of energy. When they first hatch, they are covered in a waxy layer that has protected them in the egg, this gives them their slick look when they appear out of the egg.
While some can swim within hours, it is usually the second day that the parents will take them for their first swim.
Cygnets typically stay with their parents for about 6-8 months, no longer than a year. During this time, the parents teach them how to hunt, find shelter and swim. Cygnets will start to grow their adult feathers at around 4 months old.
When it’s time for the cygnets to leave, the parents will lead or chase them away to a new area where they will live on their own.
Swans remain ‘juvenile’ for up to four years, they reach sexual maturity. In some breeds it may be as long as 7 years, while for others such as the commonly recognisable Mute Swans, it is around 3 years.
Cygnets can go on to live for up to 20-25 years.
How Many Baby Swans Are Born In A Nest?
Generally, about 2-6 cygnets are born in a nest, though a clutch usually contains an average between 6-10 eggs. Some breeds tend to have more than others.
The cygnets are usually about 8-10 inches long and weigh around 2 pounds. They are covered in down feathers, which will be replaced by their adult feathers in a few months.
Swan clutches are quite large because survival rates are relatively low.
How Big Do Baby Swans Grow?
Swan eggs are quite large, usually around 4 to 5 inches (10-12.6 cm) long and 2.4 to 3.2 inches (6-8 cm) wide. In terms of appearance, the eggs have a firm, stony-white texture, and occasionally a bluish tinge to the shell.
Baby swans are relatively large even at birth, cygnets weigh around 250g (0.56 lbs) and are approximately 8 inches (20 cm) long. At six months, the average cygnet will have grown to be around 6 kg, and will be big enough to start looking after themselves.
They don’t reach their full size until they are around 3 to 4 years old, at which point they will be around 14 kg in weight, measuring anywhere from 56 – 62 inches in length. Some breeds are bigger and heavier than others. The Trumpeter Swan for example, is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. It’s a wonder it can even make it into the air!
What Do Baby Swans Eat?
A cygnet may get by for around a week after hatching, before having their first meal. This is because they have absorbed lots of nutrients from the yolk within their egg during the hatching process. The more yolk they have absorbed, the better their chances of surviving the early stages of life.
Parents might assist their baby cygnets in finding food at first, dragging up pond weeds and organisms from deeper water for the young to eat. They will however, instinctively feed themselves quite well even from very early stages.
A baby swan’s diet varies depending on where they live. Freshwater swans tend to enjoy pondweeds, insects and tadpoles. On the other hand, salt water swans typically eat insects, along with different types of sea grass, club rush, and green algae.
While many people like to feed baby swans in ponds or lakes, it is not recommended to feed them pieces of fresh bread. Bread can decompose to encourage dangerous algae or mould spore which can be dangerous to swans. It is much safer to feed swans and other pond animals seeds rather than bread.
Where Do Baby Swans Live?
Baby swans mostly live in lakes and ponds. They like to stay near the water so they can easily swim and find food.
Although swans are more often seen in the northern hemisphere, some also live in Australia, New Zealand, and South America. In the Northern Hemisphere, all species other than the Mute Swan are migratory. They will travel far to reach the same nesting grounds each year. Some even attempt to use the same nests year on year.
While most swans are white like the Tundra Swan, there are also black swans. These are native to the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia and New Zealand.
What Are The Natural Predators Of Baby Swans?
Baby swans have a few different predators that can attack them. Some of these predators are big animals like alligators, crocodiles, and bears. These animals can easily kill a baby swan with one bite or swipe.