Red List Number Twelve – Bewick’s Swan

Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)

Dear Readers, the Bewick’s swan spends its summers in the Russian tundra, but in winter it heads south, and graces Ireland and England with its presence (the whooper swan is more likely to be seen in Scotland). This is a smallish swan (about 120 cms long, compared with the mute swan’s 152cm) and is usually seen in pairs or, later in the year, in family groups. Swans are monogamous and faithful not only to their partners, but to their breeding sites: in the British Trust for Ornithology’s ‘Into The Red’, Eileen Rees mentions being a Research Assistant at Slimbridge, and how she got to know the birds individually (the pattern of yellow on their beaks is different in each individual, as discovered by Sir Peter Scott). The volunteers and workers at the reserve would wait with anxiety for the return of the particular birds that they had grown to know and love. It’s very hard to watch as an animal you’ve grown fond of heads off into the unknown – no wonder we talk about children ‘leaving the nest’, and fear ’empty nest syndrome”.

An excerpt from Sir Peter Scott’s book of paintings of Bewick’s swans

Incidentally, Bewick’s swans are named for the artist Thomas Bewick, whose book of woodcuts of British birds is full of wonderful observation, strange folklore and the most beautiful illustrations.

Heron from ‘Bewick’s British Birds (1847)

Bewick’s swan is on the red list because of a decline in the non-breeding (winter) population. Is this a case of the bird now ‘short-stopping’ as is the case with many other species? In this phenomenon, birds that used to come all the way to the UK from other parts of Europe now settle down somewhere more close to hand (wing), because climate change has made some winter habitats less severe. Or is the bird in decline across its range? One thing that seems to be clear is that it’s the survival of the birds that is key, rather than their breeding success – they have just as many cygnets when the conditions are right, but fewer of them survive. This points to poorer conditions on their wintering grounds (maybe less food availability or more disturbance), and possibly to the impact of more extreme weather events. Whatever the reason, the population of swans in north-western Europe has fallen from almost 30,000 birds to less than 18,000. Several organisations are researching and ringing the birds, in the hope that more information will provide a way to protect and nurture these beautiful birds.

And here they are in flight. If you’re unsure if you’ve heard a whooper swan or a Bewick’s swan, note that the Bewick’s generally ‘honks’ twice, the whooper swan three times. Doesn’t this just sound like the music of the wild?

Bewick’s Swans in flight (Photo by Bouke ten Cate)

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