The Mute Swan - A Royal BirdMute swans, with their dazzling white plumage, orange bills and gracefully curved necks are among the most beautiful and instantly recognisable of all our wild birds. They live on areas of open water, rivers, ponds and canals throughout lowland Britain - either in towns or the countryside - and perhaps because they show little fear of human beings we tend to treat them with great affection and respect. Yet their serene, placid appearance can be deceptive. We need only see these magnificent birds flying low over the water, their long necks outstretched and massive wings whining noisily as they beat the air, to appreciate their true power and strength.The mysterious bond that exists between man and swan stretches back into antiquity and is celebrated in countless European myths and fairytales, but the mute swan’s original value to our ancestors was more down-to-earth. From early times in Britain swans were kept in a semi-domesticated state as a source of food. Sometimes cygnets would be captured in the wild and taken home to be fattened for the table, but many birds were kept in carefully tended swanneries within the grounds of monasteries or castles where they were allowed to breed. Old records show that the menu for an important medieval banquet might include as many as fifty swans. In fact swans were such valuable commodities that by the end of the Middle Ages they were being marked as belonging to the Church or noblemen by special nicks carved onto their bills or feet. These identifying marks were registered with the Crown under the supervision of the Royal Swan Master, and all unmarked birds were considered property of the monarch. It was illegal to kill a ‘royal’ bird, and this may well have saved the species from being hunted to extinction in Britain. Swans are no longer kept for food, but in England the Crown still has an official Swan Keeper and the ancient ceremony of swan-upping, when swans on the Thames are rounded up for identification by the Crown, still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July. A Swan’s LifeSwans are creatures of habit, often mating for life and breeding in the same place year after year. In early spring established pairs engage in elaborate courtship rituals and begin building their large sturdy nests from sticks and vegetation at the water’s edge. In late April about six round, greyish-green eggs are laid.During the breeding season the male or ‘cob’ becomes particularly aggressive, raising his wings and hissing threateningly whenever an intruder approaches the nest. As swans can deal a nasty blow with their wings they are best avoided at this time. Rival swans - or indeed any other water birds with white plumage - are not tolerated in the breeding area either, and the resident cob will drive them off or attempt to drown them by holding their heads under water. Whenever the female or ‘pen’ leaves the nest to feed he will guard the eggs, but rarely incubates them.The cygnets hatch out a little over a month later, and at first they are covered in a soft ash-grey down. This is soon replaced by the first brown feathers of the immature bird, and at this stage, with their drab plumage and short necks, cygnets do indeed resemble the ugly duckling of the fairytale. However, within six or seven months they will have developed the long neck and snowy plumage of the adult swan.Swans are devoted parents, keeping a watchful eye on their brood, allowing them to ‘hitch a lift’ on their backs and diligently teaching them how to feed on the underwater plants which will form the main part of their diet. The family group remains together until the winter or following spring when the juveniles are evicted from the breeding territory. Young birds may then join flocks of non-breeding swans, and often remain in these colonies for two or three years until they are old enough to breed. They will eventually form a pair bond and begin the search for a vacant nesting territory. Did You Know?• The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is one of seven swan species found world-wide.• Mute swans are our largest wild birds, weighing about 10kg, measuring 1.5m in length, with a wingspan of almost 2.5m. The cob (male) is slightly larger than the pen (female).• The mute is our only resident breeding swan. Whooper and Bewick’s swans migrate south in winter from their Arctic breeding grounds. These swans have yellow bills and shorter necks.• Mute swans communicate by quiet grunts and barks, and their name probably derives from the fact that they are silent in flight.• Their main diet consists of aquatic plants but they will also graze on crops and grass on dry land.• There are around 30,000 mute swans in Britain. Numbers have grown by over 40% since the 1980’s, thanks partly to the banning of lead weights used by anglers.• Mute swans usually mate for life, but some change partners several times. Well-established pairs have most success rearing young.• Mute swans can live for over 20 years, but the average life span is only 7 years. Many young birds die within their first year in flying accidents.• The turkey, which was introduced from North America in the sixteenth century, gradually replaced swan as the main dish at the banqueting table.• As native wild birds, swans are protected by law. It is illegal to capture, injure or kill them, or to damage their nests or eggs.