Cygnus columbianus bewickii
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
Bewick’s swans are small in stature when compared to the much larger and more common mute swan. Their necks are straighter than the curved neck of a mute swan, giving the Bewick’s swan a more upright posture.
Their bodies and wings are white all year round, and their legs are black. A key identifying feature is the bill, which is black at the tip and bright yellow at the base, with a greater area of yellow than in the otherwise very similar Whooper swan.
Male and female Bewick’s swans are identical in plumage and colouring, although females are noticeably smaller.
Juvenile Bewick’s swans are smaller than adults and have an off-white/pale grey colour. Their bill is initially greyish-pink.
Bewick's Swan standing by the edge of the river
The smallest swan species to visit the UK, Bewick’s swans are roughly the same size as a Canada goose. Males are typically larger than females in this species.
Bewick's Swan foraging in natural habitat
Compared to mute swans, Bewick’s swans are a much more vocal species. They have softer higher-pitched calls than the harsh hornlike honking of the similar Whooper swan. Calls heard in flight include a ‘hoo’ or ‘ho’ note, and a softer ‘honk’.
Pair of Bewick's Swans swimming on the lake
Roots, grasses, and other aquatic vegetation are among the main sources of food for Bewick’s swans during the breeding season. Foraging takes place on grasslands next to wetlands, as well as on the water surface, with their long necks extending below the water to find plant matter and some aquatic invertebrates.
On wintering grounds, leftover potato and grain crops from cultivated fields are a major source of food for visiting Bewick's swans. Pondweeds, roots, and soft grasses are also eaten.
In their early days, Bewick’s swans may feed on immature mosquitoes and other aquatic insects, before gradually introducing plant matter into their diet.
Bewick's Swan foraging in grassland habitat
During the breeding season, Bewick’s swans are found on Arctic tundra landscapes in Siberia, using lakes, pools and ponds. Coastal regions are popular, although some pairs may regularly return to breeding grounds slightly further inland.
Winter habitats include marshlands, grasslands, and cultivated fields, particularly in coastal areas or around estuaries.
Bewick’s swans are a migratory species, with distinct breeding and wintering grounds some distance apart. Breeding occurs from Russia’s Kola Peninsula eastwards into northern Siberia.
Post-breeding, Bewick’s swans disperse, with many migrating south-west to spend winter in north-western Europe, from the UK and the Netherlands east to Estonia and the Balkan states. Eastward migration also occurs, with wintering populations present in eastern China, Japan, and the Korean peninsula.
An international census in 2005 recorded 21,500 Bewick’s swans overwintering in the Netherlands. Since then, declines are evident and the global population is estimated at fewer than 18,000 in the whole of Europe. The Netherlands, Germany, and the UK all have sizeable winter populations while breeding Bewick’s swans are only found in Russia.
Bewick's Swan walking across the icy ground during winter
Populations of Bewick’s swans are showing a significant decline in recent years, and they are becoming increasingly rare in north-western Europe.
However, annually, 4,350 individuals spend winter months in the UK, so sightings are not especially uncommon, particularly in eastern England and in a band across southern England running from The Wash to the Severn Estuary.
Bewick’s swans are winter visitors to the UK, arriving from October onwards and departing by March. Eastern England, Lancashire, and the south-west offer the best chances of sightings, with The Ouse and Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, Martin Mere in Lancashire and Slimbridge in Gloucestershire among sites with regular reports.
Bewick's Swans taking-off from the water
On average, Bewick’s swans live for around 9 years, breeding for the first time at four years of age. However, some individuals live for much longer – the oldest known example of a Bewick’s swan was 28 years and 1 month, according to ringing data.
Known to be particularly aggressive defenders of their nests and young, Bewick’s swans have few successful predators. On rare occasions that nests are left unattended, Arctic foxes, eagles, gulls, weasels, and wolves may opportunistically raid nests, although attacks when an adult is present are rare.
Bewick’s swans are listed as Schedule I birds in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. This legislation prevents any disturbance to nest sites, eggs and young, and also states that it is an offence to knowingly kill, injure or capture a Bewick’s swan.
Bewick’s swans have Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list. Increases have been shown in their breeding range, but declines in numbers wintering in western Europe are evident, particularly since the year 2000, leading to the species being added to the European Red List.
Bewick's Swan swimming with her cygnets
Nest sites are chosen on small islands to offer maximum protection from land predators. Large mounds of moss, lichen, and grasses are constructed, with a depression in the middle where the eggs are laid. Females undertake the bulk of the building work, pulling materials into shape around themselves while sitting on the nest foundation, and building upwards using vegetation and mud.
Bewick’s swans return to breeding grounds from late April to early May, and nesting begins a short while later. Eggs are laid in June and incubation lasts for 29 to 30 days. Males take a smaller share of incubation duties than females, relieving their mate so she can take breaks to feed. Incubation lasts for 29 to 30 days.
Between three and five creamy white eggs are laid, measuring 107 mm by 68 mm (4.2 in by 2.7 in). Eggs are not glossy and later in the incubation period may become stained a light tan, from the surrounding nesting materials.
Bewick’s swans mate for life, remaining as strongly bonded pairs from one year to the next, returning to the same breeding grounds and raising young at nest sites they have previously used successfully.
Pair of Bewick's Swans
Aggressive behaviour witnessed in Bewick’s swans is largely confined to posturing and rarely becomes physical. Some biting and snapping at intruders is usually enough to drive away any potential threats.
Bewick's Swan standing and stretching on the riverbank
Bewick’s swans are a fully migratory species, breeding in the inhospitable Arctic tundras of Siberia, and migrating south in winter in search of frost-free waters. A typical migration journey takes between 48 and 50 days. No Bewick’s swans are resident in the same territory all year round.
Once waters in the Arctic begin to freeze over and food supplies start to run low, Bewick’s swans embark on their southern migration flights to more temperate regions until conditions begin to ease the following spring.
Foraging becomes impossible as the ground freezes, and further south, where temperatures are milder, offers abundant food resources during winter.
Bewick’s swans migrate from their Siberian breeding grounds south-westwards into north-west Europe, particularly the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, and the Baltic States, particularly Estonia. Smaller numbers head to the south-east, spending winter months in eastern China, Japan and parts of the Korean peninsula.
Bewick’s swans are regular visitors to the UK each winter, but none are year-round residents, leaving for breeding grounds in Siberia each spring. No breeding takes place in the UK.
Pair of Bewick's Swans in-flight near to the mountains
Naturalist William Yarrell named the species in 1830, after a well-established engraver, Thomas Bewick, who was a leading illustrator of birds and animals at the time.
Bewick’s swans are a separate subspecies of tundra swan: tundra swans are native to North America, while Bewick’s swans are only found in Europe and Asia.
Cygnus columbianus bewickii
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
115cm to 127cm
170cm to 195cm
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