Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Article ideas come to me from a wide variety of sources. This week's arrived in a phone call in the early hours before work one recent morning. My next door neighbor asked "So when did you and Chris buy a swan?" "A what?" I asked, shaking off the last remnant of sleep. "Look outside," she said. I looked out my kitchen window, and there was a very large white bird cruising around the pond that we share with several neighbors. My husband and I had nothing to do with this bird's mysterious appearance.
We keep a pair of binoculars and a bird identification book near our kitchen window, as the pond tends to be a rest area for lots of bird traffic in the area. In the spring and fall each year I have spotted many unique bird travelers passing through on their way to their winter or summer quarters.
The bird in question on the pond that morning was solid white, with a curving neck, and it was a lot larger any of the ducks or geese that normally reside there. A quick peek with binoculars revealed an orange bill with a black portion near the head, which identified this visitor as the Mute Swan, Cygnus olor.
The Mute Swan is not native to North America. It is native to Europe and Asia. They were imported to the United States in the late 19th century, primarily to use as "living decorations" in waterways at parks and wealthy homes.
Over time, some of these swans either escaped or were released into the wild. Some sources refer to these swans as "feral". My husband thought this meant that the swans had become vicious and threatening. That's not really what feral means. Feral means an animal has gone from being domesticated back to being wild or untamed.
I would argue that the term feral doesn't apply to Mute Swans, since they were never really domesticated. People clipped their wings to keep them from flying away, but they were a wild animal brought to our continent for entertainment. The species was never really tamed.
However you define them, there are significant populations of Mute Swans in various locations across the United States. In some places, if the populations are large enough, they can severely damage or destroy local plant populations.
It's no wonder that these birds can cause significant damage, as they themselves are some of the largest waterfowl in existence. Male Mute Swans, called cobs, typically weigh about 26 pounds; and the females, called pens, weigh in at 20 pounds. Adults are up to 5.5 feet long and have a wingspan of around 7 feet.
Mute Swans are also very territorial, particularly when nesting. This has raised some alarm among conservationists concerned that they may drive away native waterfowl from a given area. They also may attack people that get too close. But this behavior is useful for deterring Canadian geese that have become a nusiance in various waterways. There are businesses that will rent or sell pairs of swans to golf courses, shopping centers, subdivisions, parks, or anywhere geese are a problem. The swans take up residence and chase the geese from the area.
Along with concerns that there Mute Swan populations may be growing fast enough to cause serious damage to our ecosystem, there are concerns that a native swan, the Trumpeter Swan may disappear from the wild. There are concerted efforts to breed this species in captivity and release pairs into the wild to restore their populations, including in Illinois. They are the biggest waterfowl in North America, weighing in at 35 pounds. Their populations were decimated in the early 1900's due to excessive hunting and habitat loss.
So where did the Mute Swan swimming in our pond come from? I'm not really sure. He (or she) is alone, which is a bit unusual, since swans mate for life. The largest populations in Illinois are in Cook and Lake Counties-- so maybe he got tired of city life. There are small populations in other parts of the state—so maybe he got curious what was over the horizon. Maybe someone forgot to keep his feathers clipped and he flew away from a park. I'm not sure we will ever know. For now I will just enjoy this unique sight in my backyard.