Would you like to know how to help our beautiful swans? These regal creatures are found throughout England, but how much do you know about them? Are they owned by the Queen? Can they break your arm? How can we help them?
Most swans in England are mute swans (they do make noise) although whooper swans migrate from Iceland, and there are a few other swans including black swans (native to Australia, these are mostly on private land). It’s true that swans mate for life, but they will look for another mate, if one swan dies. If you find an injured swan, call your vet or local wildlife rescue. Also see the post on how to help our ducks and geese.
Swans make excellent parents and although they have no teeth, they will hiss and chase away any predators (they can’t break your arm, unless you are a child or have weak bones). Natural threats to cygnets are pike, herons, mink and foxes. One swan recently died of a broken heart, after hooligans smashed the eggs in the nest.
Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on the River Thames. All mute swans on public land are owned by the Queen, an improvement on Henry VIII, who used to eat them. It’s a criminal offence to harm a swan, so if you have concerns, call Wildlife Crime Unit, Animal Crimewatch, Crimestoppers (anonymous), RSPCA or the Police.
Things Swans Do Like
- Village Ponds. Although garden ponds are good for wildlife, most swans live on bigger public waterways (swan sanctuaries often like landowners with no predators like dogs to be on call, for disabled swans to live out their lives in peace, after injury).
- Underwater Food. Swans like pondweed, fish, grubs, insects, tadpoles. This is far better for them than bread, which in many cases can harm (see below).
- Railway Tracks. Swans often believe these are rivers, in rainy weather. So many trains are delayed, due to swans waddling along the tracks with their offspring. Another reason to join Chris Packham’s legal challenge to stop the disastrous wildlife-killing plan (22,000 creatures a year for HS2).
Things Swans Don’t Like
- Power Lines. Swans can fly fast, but need a good run to get going, due to being so big. So they often get disoriented near roads, which results in broken wings or electrocution. Ask your council to install bird diverters, which swans can see.
- Fishing waste. If you angle, take all your fishing waste with you, and dispose of it responsibly (sealed in the bin or in a fishing line recycling bin that doesn’t resemble a bird’s nest). Lead shot was banned a few years back, but still lurks in some riverbeds.
- Oil. Oil spills cause all birds to lose insulation and waterproofing, so they freeze or drown. Recycle used oil, use a waterless car wash (to stop untreated oily water going down storm drains) and use a funnel when changing oil. See tips to be a greener driver. Antifreeze is lethal to pets/wildlife, let your mechanic change it (or within a controlled environment: use sand or kitty litter to soak up spills).
- Botulism (the organism found in honey, why babies should never eat it) harms swan flocks, caused by slow-running water in warm weather. The best prevention is better water and field tests.
- Dogs. We love dogs, but swans don’t, as they are natural predators. Keep dogs on leads near swans, for safety of both creatures.
- Plastic. This can choke them, everything from plastic bags to those plastic rings to hold beer cans (if you drink beer, buy brands wrapped in cardboard: Stella Artois sells vegan-friendly cans of beer, wrapped in biodegradable cardboard.
- Balloons. These only biodegrade 6 months after being released, and harm wildlife on land and and at sea (one horse recently died from choking on a balloon). Likewise with fire lanterns, which fall to the ground with a metal spike (they also endanger lives of coastguards and lifeboat crew who mistake them for flares, and are fire hazards: several animals died recently in a German zoo, due to a fire caused by a discarded fire lantern).
- Kites. The string gets wrapped around bird necks and wings. Expert advice is to not fly kites, as they cause harm in the air, on land and at sea. If you use them, at least choose biodegradable kites (slightly less dangerous) and avoid use at dawn and dusk, when birds are more likely flying.
Should You Feed Bread to Wildfowl?
Although it’s traditional, millions of people feeding wild birds at the same time can lead to problems. Never feed white, mouldy or stale/hard bread (pizza crust, crackers, stale rolls etc) nor fat (butter, lard, roast dinner grease, sandwich leftovers). This stops waterproofing/insulation of feathers, and can stop them flying.
Artificial feeding encourages birds to be near roads and dogs. Most wildfowl can live on what’s under the water. If you feed them, Swan Sanctuary says feed tiny amounts of fresh (soaked) wholemeal bread, tinned/defrosted sweetcorn or peas or torn lettuce, cabbage or spinach. Don’t stop feeding suddenly or birds could starve – gradually reduce food in summer, when there is plenty of natural food around. Throw food on the water, so birds stay in their natural environment, and won’t choke on dry bread. But avoid throwing too much, as uneaten bread can cause algae and disease.