The mute swan – loved, a little feared … and not so silent

·1 min read
<span>Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

The mute swan is not so much a bird, more of a national treasure: the avian equivalent of Sir David Attenborough or the Queen. And just like them, swans are widely loved and admired.

Yet people also sometimes fear swans: when a territorial male chases after you, hissing and spreading his wings, he can be a fearsome adversary. And at times, people wilfully seek to harm them. Perhaps because they present such huge and obvious targets, swans are regularly shot and killed.

Nor are mute swans as silent as their name suggests. When they fly low overhead, their beating wings sound like a pair of bellows; or, as the writer Paul Theroux described it, like a couple making love in a hammock.

There are many myths about swans, and they are often untrue. They do not all belong to the Queen, nor can a swan break your arm with a blow of its wing. They do, however, mostly mate for life, and are a classic symbol of beauty, fidelity and purity. Indeed, across the northern hemisphere, the various species of swans are more deeply embedded in ancient cultures than almost any other bird.

For most of us, though, swans are simply a familiar and comforting presence on rivers, lakes and park ponds; bringing back childhood memories of our first close encounter with Britain’s largest and most magnificent bird.

Stephen Moss’s latest book, The Swan: A Biography is out now. Buy through Guardian Books for £11.04 (RRP £12.99)

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