Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



Nature Bulletin No. 616   November 5, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

Since ancient times and in many countries the swan has been a symbol of gracefulness and a favorite motif for music, art, literature and legends In Greek mythology, Zeus in the form of a swan courted Leda and fathered Apollo. One of Wagner's operas is woven around the old German story of Lohengrin, the knight of the swan "Swan Lake" is the famous ballet by Tschaikovsky.

Those huge birds that float like great white flowers on park lagoons are Mute Swans, a half-domesticated European waterfowl brought to this country for ornamental purposes. This is the only kind most of us ever see. However, this is the season -- early November -- when the native Whistling Swan on its southward migration occasionally stops over in the Chicago region. Small numbers are seen every year or two on McGinnis Slough Twice in recent years bird watchers by the dozens had the opportunity to observe large flocks, day after day.

The largest waterfowl in the world are swans. Their extremely long snaky necks allow them to reach deep down and feed on the roots and stems of underwater plants or to be hoisted high like periscopes to spy over the country. The male swan is called a "cob" and the female a "pen" The old Latin word for swan is "cygnus", so the young are "cygnets".

The two North American species and the exotic mute are white when adult and have similar habits. The male and female mate for life. The nest is a hollow in the top of a large mound of water weeds which they pile up in or near water. The large eggs, commonly 4 to 8 in number, hatch after five weeks of incubation by the pen. The cob stands guard, driving away intruders and all other swans except his mate. Like ducklings and goslings, cygnets take to the water immediately after hatching. Gray at first, the young do not turn white until their second year.

The mute swan is not mute. It hisses, grunts, and barks. Unlike our native swans it has a black knob on the upper bill In olden times a young swan was a table delicacy and, in England, all swans have belonged to the crown since 1482. In a special ceremony each year the swans on the Thames River are rounded up, their wings clipped. and their bills marked with the royal brand. At nesting time the mute swan cob is especially dangerous. Children and dogs coming near the nest are often badly beaten or dragged into the water and drowned. A blow from his powerful wing has been known to break a man's leg. In America some have escaped and now breed by the hundreds in the wild.

The whistling swan's voice is not so much a whistle as it is like soft musical laughter varied with long whoops and clucking sounds. They nest by the thousands around small lakes and on islands far north of the Arctic Circle. In summer after the adults have molted their flight feathers there is a period when they cannot fly. Then Eskimos chase and spear them from canoes and kayaks. In autumn they gather into large flocks, head into the wind, and laboriously take off on their long trip to the south Atlantic coast. Once airborne, they travel at high speeds, often above the clouds. Sometimes a flock lights in the rapids above Niagara Falls and are swept to their death before they can take wing.

The Trumpeter Swan is much like the whistler but larger, weighing up to 35 or 40 pounds. This great bird faced extinction in the 1920's because it had been slaughtered for its down and breast feathers, as well as for sport Through complete protection against hunting, and establishment of refuges in both Canada and the United States, its numbers are increasing.

Let's all sing: "Half swan. half goose. Alexander was a swoose "

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs