All swans can fly with some species reaching heights of 6,000 to 8,000 feet, averaging speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour and travelling thousands of kilometres each year. Swans are the biggest living members of the waterfowl family Anatidae and are one of the largest and heaviest flying birds.
There are seven known living species within the genus Cygnus. They are:
Swans are found in many countries across the globe where the summers are mild to warm, and rainfall is seasonal or spread across part of the year. Some species migrate partially, whilst others wholly. During their winter migration, and depending upon the species, some will travel long distances to a warmer climate or find better food reserves.
Swans are graceful birds and may look slow as they glide through the water. However, once airborne, they can be fast flyers and, some species have been recorded flying at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
Bewicks Swan in flight
Some species like the Bewick's and Whooper swan travel thousands of kilometres to and from their breeding grounds each year, whilst others can fly hundreds of miles each day. Some species can fly around 2,000km without refuelling. They go in search of food, a better place to live or to find their partner.
Out of all the swan species, the Bewick’s swan migrates the furthest. They winter mainly within areas of the UK along a 3,500 km route from Russia and the Asian tundra and only stop for short periods to feed and rest.
One Bewick's recorded flying a distance of around 4,000 miles (6,437 km) in just under ten weeks, whilst another tracked by GPS flew 831km in 36 hours on one leg of its journey and then flew a further 1,337km in 15 hours and averaged a speed of just over 55 miles per hour (89km/hour).
Generally, swans fly at speeds of between 20 to 30 miles per hour. Some flocks have been known to fly at speeds between 50 to 70 miles per hour in a tailwind.
The Mute swan has a wingspan of up to 238cm and can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour (80km per hour).
A pair of Whooper Swans flying
Depending on the species, most swans will fly around 2,000 to 4,000 feet. However, during migration, some will fly at much greater altitudes. For instance, a flock of Whooper swans were recorded by radar, flying over Northern Ireland at 26,500 feet (8,000 metres). Tundra swans can fly at speeds of 50 to 60 mph reaching heights of between 6,000 to 8,000 feet.
Swans fly in flocks in either a diagonal line or V shape formation during migration. One bird takes the lead and it is their job to push through the air leading the flock. Swans take turns to lead the flock; when one gets tired, another bird takes its place.
Young swans can take their first flight from around 12 weeks old or when their flight feathers and chest muscles are strong enough. They perform several attempted flights each until they are strong enough with each flight becoming longer.
Mute cygnets are not able to fly until they are between 120 to 150 days old.
Mute Swan Cygnet in flight
How far swans migrate depends upon the species but some can fly around 4,000 miles when migrating, often in large flocks of up to 100 birds.
Whooper swans perform the longest sea-crossing migrating up to 870 miles (1,400 km) between the UK, Ireland, and Iceland. They can fly up to 620 miles in 12 hours at speeds of around 55 miles per hour.
When migrating, Tundra swans can fly several hundred miles each day, averaging a speed of between 18 to 30 miles per hour and flying at 6,000 to 8,00 feet. Flocks have been recorded flying between 50 to 60 mph with a tailwind.
Trumpeter Swans preparing to take off from the water
The adult swans will fly with the young birds to join other birds in non-breeding areas. Tundra swan cygnets, accompanied by their parents, make their first long flight at around four months old. They learn the migration routes and where to feed and rest.
The Mute swan (Cygnus Olor) is native to much of Europe and Asia and is one of the largest and heaviest flying birds worldwide. The distance travelled depends upon whether they are migratory.
Some will remain in their normal territories all-year round, as long as there is a good food supply, while others may travel short distances to form winter flocks in nearby lakes and rivers.
The majority of resident birds in the UK for instance remain close to their birth place (travelling less than 30 miles away). Research has found that only around 3% of these birds travel more than 60 miles from where they were born.
The migratory species in Europe may migrate and winter in North Africa, parts of India and the Middle East.
Mute Swan taking off
Whooper swans are wholly migratory and can fly great distances. They can fly non-stop from Scotland to Iceland during their migration, approximately 620 miles (1,000km).
Black swans (Cygnus atratus) are not migrants but are nomadic, so the exact distance they can fly is unknown. Generally, they fly at night and rest during the day in open waters in search of better wetlands and good food supplies.