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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The following list of questions are the questions we are asked on almost a daily basis – we hope the answers will be of use.

General Questions

Is the sanctuary open to the general public?

Other than for dropping off injured waterfowl the sanctuary is only open for visits by prior arrangement.

Swan-related Questions

What do swans eat?

Swans living on fresh water will typically eat pondweed, stonewort and wigeon grass, as well as tadpoles and insects such as milfoil.

Swans living on salt water will typically eat sea arrow grass, salt marsh grass, eel grass, club rush and green algae, as well as insects and molluscs.

What can I feed swans?

If you want to feed swans then give them fresh bread (mould is poisonous to them), grain such as wheat or corn, and fresh greens such as lettuce or spinach. The food should be thrown onto the water so that they can swallow water with the food – feeding them on land is environmentally unsound and encourages the swans to leave the water whenever they see people which can bring them into harm from cars, dogs etc.

Is feeding bread bad for swans?

The simple answer is no, mouldy bread should never be fed and bread should not be the only diet of a swan but bread is not dangerous to swans. There has been much talk recently about banning the feeding of bread to swans but no scientific studies have been made to back up the reasoning behind this. There is a link to a published paper here which studied swan feeding habits including the feeding of bread. As stated above please feed the swans on the water it is much safer for them and they like their food wet to swallow easier.

Can swans be over-fed?

No. Swans are not greedy creatures and will only eat what they need.

Should I help feed a swan that is nesting ?

No. Swans should not be fed on the nest, it encourages vermin and also upsets the brooding clock of the nesting bird. It is natural for the female to lose around a quarter of her body weight during nesting and this allows her to judge when the eggs should hatch. Feeding her interferes with this.

Is it normal for a swan to fold one of its legs up onto its back?

Yes. It’s like us crossing our legs, plus the large surface area of the foot is used for body temperature control like an elephant’s ear, absorbing heat from the sun when necessary.

At what age do swans start mating?

A juvenile swan normally lives as part of a flock until it is about 4 years old and deemed as being an adult. It then seeks out a mate, most commonly from the flock it’s living in, and heads off with the mate to find their own mating territory. If another mating pair is nearby then problems can occur in the form of a territorial battle, the losers of which will have to move on in search of another “patch”.

What time of year do swans breed?

The mute swan, which is the white swan most commonly seen in the British Isles, will normally mate at anytime from spring through to summer, with the cygnets being born anytime from May through to July.

How long do swans sit on their eggs?

After the nest has been built, which typically takes 2-3 weeks, the egg laying process begins with an egg being laid every 12-24 hours. Once all the eggs have been laid, which can take 2-3 weeks, they will all be incubated (ie sat on to start the growth process) at the same time with hatching usually 42 days (6 weeks) later.

Is it normal for a swan to sit on her eggs for longer than the normal 6 weeks?

Yes. If she is still sitting on the eggs then she must be able to hear movement within the eggs. It may be that she lost her first clutch of eggs to a predator and has laid a new set – this would explain the extended “sitting” period.

What predators do cygnets and swans have?

New born cygnets are mainly lost to crows, herons, magpies, turtles, pike and large perch. Both cygnets and full-grown swans are also the prey of foxes and mink.

The nesting female has disappeared/been killed – should anything be done?

No. The male will take over the nesting process and is quite capable of rearing the cygnets alone.

The nesting female’s mate has disappeared/been killed – should anything be done?

No. She is quite capable of rearing the cygnets alone. People often worry that nesting females will starve to death when they have lost their mates as they are scared to leave their nests in search of food – this is incorrect. All female swans feast before nesting as they know food will be harder to come by once they are on the nest – it is normal for them to lose weight during the nesting period.

There’s a swan’s nest in a really vulnerable location – what can be done?

If the nest is vulnerable to interference from human factors, such as on a tow-path or the bank of a pond where people walk their dogs, then you should contact your local council and ask them to erect protective fencing around the nest. If the nest is vulnerable to natural events such as high tides & floodwater then it should be left alone so that the swans can learn from the experience – if a young couple lose a nest under these circumstances then they will learn not to build a nest so low down the next year. Sad as it is, they have to be allowed to learn from natural experiences which is one reason why it is illegal to interfere with a swan’s nest in any way.

How many eggs usually hatch out and how many of the cygnets usually survive to adulthood?

Swans hatch up to 10 eggs at a time with the expectation of losing several of them. It is not uncommon for all the cygnets to be lost to predators, nor is it uncommon for most of them to survive – it all depends on the location and the natural protection afforded them. As the parents grow older they learn from the experience of previous years.

Do swans breed throughout their lives?

Yes, though the number of eggs laid each year tends to decrease with time.

How long do the cygnets stay with their parents?

Typically 6 months.

Is it normal for the parents to be chasing their cygnets once they’re several months old?

Absolutely. Once the cygnets are old enough to look after themselves the parents cut the parental ties with them and chase them away, sometimes quite aggressively.

Where do cygnets go when they leave their parents?

They normally join the first flock of swans they encounter where they usually stay until they mature when about 4 years old.

Is it true that swans mate for life?

As a general rule this is true. If a mate is lost then the surviving mate will go through a grieving process like humans do, after which it will either stay where it is on its own, fly off and find a new stretch of water to live on (where a new mate may fly in and join it) or fly off and re-join a flock.

How long do swans normally live?

In the wild, with all the hazards they have to live with (vandals, pollution, dogs, mink, overhead cables, bridges, pylons, lead poisoning, fishing-tackle injuries etc), an average lifespan would be 12 years. In a protected environment this figure can reach 30 years.

Do swans moult?

Yes – typically in July or August each year, during which time they are unable to fly. Breeding pairs do not moult at the same time as they, and any offspring, would be too vulnerable to attack. They are unable to fly for approximately 6 weeks from the time that they lose their flight feathers to the time they have grown new ones.

Can swans take off from land?

Yes, but they need at least 30 yards to become airborne and the same again to reach a safe height to clear surrounding obstructions such as houses.

Do swans bite?

Not as such as they don’t have teeth, but they can hiss and peck which can cause some discomfort if the skin gets pinched.

Is it true that a swan’s wing can break your arm?

Yes, but only in exceptional cases. If a wing in full span and velocity were to hit a weak-boned person (such as a child or an elderly person) then it is theoretically possible. In reality it is almost unheard of and is never used as a form of attack as swans are a defensive bird. The only time they become aggressive is when they are protecting their nesting ground or cygnets when they will chase off intruders, be they other swans, geese or humans who get too close.

Is it true that all mute swans in the UK are owned by the Queen?

Yes, she has the prerogative right of ownership for all the mute swans in England and Wales.

What is Swan Upping?

Swan Upping is the annual census of the swan population on stretches of the River Thames in the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire which takes place during the third week of July each year. For more details see the official web site of The British Monarchy.

Is it true that harming a swan in any way is a criminal offence?

Yes, and prosecutions are becoming more commonplace now that conviction precedents have been set. It is also a criminal offence to interfere with nesting swans in any way – they cannot be moved if the location of the nest is inconvenient for whatever reason.

What are the biggest threats to swans?

In addition to the natural threats they face from foxes, mink & botulism, modern society has added several more such as pollution, vandalism, uncontrolled dogs, fishing-tackle and lead poisoning, as well as unmarked pylons, overhead cables & bridges.

How can you tell the male from the female?

Whilst juveniles this is only really possible by veterinary inspection. However, once they have matured (about 4 years old) there is normally a marked difference in size (males are bigger) and, in the case of mute swans, the black fleshy knob at the base of the beak is larger in the male.

I’ve seen a swan with a big lump under its beak – should I do anything?

This is normally a grass ball and not a cause for concern but, if you are in any doubt, please contact us.

I’ve seen a swan with big lumps on its feet the size of marbles – should I do anything?

This is normally “Bumble Foot” and not a cause for concern but, again, if you are in any doubt please contact us.

Why do some swans have orangey stains on their heads?

This is caused by iron in the river beds which stains the feathers when the swan is looking for food in the silt.

Do swans sleep on land or water?

Both. They can sleep standing on one leg or whilst floating, usually with their heads tucked back under a wing.

How many species of swans reside in the UK?

The only permanent resident is the mute swan which does not migrate (though they may move around the country in winter to better feeding grounds). Bewick and whooper swans are winter visitors – see our Swan Species section for further details.

I’ve seen a black swan in the wild…

Black swans are actually from Australia and New Zealand and are not indigenous to this country. Some are bred and sold in the UK for private lakes and would normally have their wings pinioned when very young such that they cannot fly and escape into the wild. However a few clearly slip through the net as there are several living on the River Thames these days. They live happily with the common white “Mute” swan and eat the same food so, if you do see one, there is nothing to worry about.

Goose & Duck-related Questions

What can I feed geese & ducks?

The same as swans.

When do geese & ducks breed?

Around the same time as swans, although ducks can breed a few months earlier if the winter has been mild. Unlike swans and geese, ducks actually breed twice each year, typically between April & September.

How long do geese & ducks sit on their eggs?

For geese typically 32-34 days and for ducks 24-28 days.

The Swan Sanctuary