We thought we’d try a new take on communication, and look to the animal kingdom to see how they communicate with each other, and us. With spring arriving here in the Northern Hemisphere, Angela Huxley gives a view on swans. These beautiful birds are prevalent on our rivers and in parks, so now is probably a really good time for people to understand some of the things swans could be telling you.
Although swans native to Europe are known as ‘mute swans’, they have quite a broad vocabulary – some of it mute, but some of it very vocal – and both types can be contextual.
Fluffing out their wings is a classic way to warn intruders to stay away. Like many other birds and animals, they want to look as big and as threatening as possible. Coupled with the neck curved back over the body and the head down – not for the faint hearted. But then they sometimes fluff out their wings just to catch the wind for an easier and faster swim.
The affectionate and graceful head-dipping used in courting is normally silent. When used to greet someone brandishing a bag of swan pellets, the head dip is more animated. It’s followed by a lifting of the bill, and often accompanied by a loud snort or two, a prolonged rattling in the back of the throat, and some quite dramatic wing flapping. Contented grunting may also continue during feeding, and they use a selection of snorts and grunts to communicate with each other.
Snorting may also be used to attract the attention of a would-be feeder who is spotted from the water but looking the other way. I’m not sure if they recognise people or not but I’m convinced they recognise voices.
Their distress call is heart-rending. It’s a plaintive, high-pitched, protracted kind of yelp. Witness this if a swan is under attack from another swan (they’re very territorial once they’ve claimed a patch) or it can’t find its mate, or a cygnet is missing.
Cygnets are particularly vocal when food is on offer. It astonishes me that such a large bird (as they soon grow to be, from quite small fluffy things) makes the sort of high-pitched cheeping sounds you associate with a tiny yellow chick. Even when they’re old enough to be chased off their parents’ territory, they’re still talking their ‘baby talk’.
No swan vocabulary would be complete without the sound most people associate with them – that warning hiss. An indicator of fear rather than real aggression – but unnerving if you happen to stray too close to their nest in a canoe!
Angela is a technical author who lives and works close to the River Severn. Her hobbies include walking, cycling, scuba diving and swan watching.