Baby swans hatching from their eggs marks the triumphant end to the mother swan’s month-long vigil. The pen (and cob) will stay only a few days at the nest with her hatchlings, severely weakened and in need of sustenance, before embarking on their epic life adventure.
This section will discuss how parents care for their young from the time they emerge from the egg until the newly fledged baby swans take their first swim.
The Birth of a Baby Swan
The cygnets are still covered in a waxy covering that encased it when it was within the egg, insulating it from the various substances contained therein. This waxy covering gives them their wet look when they first hatch, but it quickly fades as it dries and some of it rubs off as they push themselves against their mother and over the nest material during the next few hours.
When the newborn swan is dry, it takes on the light grey, fluffy appearance that attracts viewers to cygnets.
The weight of the cygnet when it hatches is around 64 percent of the weight of the egg when it was originally laid (the other 36 percent is made up of the weight of the egg shell, membranes, liquids/moisture, and metabolic losses) and 2.5 percent of its total weight when it’s an adult.
At this point, the cygnets are incredibly vulnerable; they have little fear of anything, thus their parents will be extremely protective, if not hostile, of any incursion. Because their young are about to program themselves, or’set’ themselves, to another item that they will naturally follow for the next six months or so, the cob and pen become very sensitive to any outside influence at this time. They will look to their parents for guidance in finding food, housing, and setting an example for them to follow.
This is referred to as imprinting. What occurs is that the cygnet will ‘lock on’ to (or imprint on) the first huge moving thing it encounters and follow it obsessively until the time comes for it to fly away and start a new, independent life.
Swans don’t just imprint with their eyes; they also imprint with their ears. Even early in the incubation stage, the developing embryo will be able to hear sounds from the outside world within the egg. During the nesting stage, the pen and cob are said to make a variety of sounds to begin the imprinting process of their progeny.
The mother and father create a series of sounds after the cygnet is born, which the baby swans use to train themselves to recognize their parents. (Each swan makes its own distinct sound, similar to how humans each have their own distinct voice.) The sound of the pen is slightly higher pitched than that of the cob.)
We call the swan’s hatchling a precocial hatchling. That is, it is entirely capable of seeing, walking, feeding, and cleaning itself. It will have down (a fluffy furry substance) and will not require nearly as much attention from its parents as a kingfisher or blue tit chick would. A baby swan, on the other hand, will be quite functional straight away, even if it will still require a lot of care and direction from pen and cob. This is why it imprints on them, as it requires a guiding light in its early days.
Swans have been known to imprint on chickens, ducks, and even humans, so mum and dad take extra precautions to ensure that their infant sees and hears its parents first. The cygnets will be given everything they need to grow up into adult swans if they imprint on their parents, which is a good parenting instinct.
They would often place their heads up close to the baby’s head and make quiet calls to them to aid the imprinting process and familiarize themselves with their progeny.
This also explains why the pen and cob are so eager to get rid of any other large, ‘imprintable’ object from their domain. If there are any other imprintable items in the vicinity, their children may learn to follow something other than their parents, which means the baby’s needs are unlikely to be supplied and it may die.
As the cygnet forms attachments to its parents, it begins to develop a fear of a variety of different objects (including humans and other swans), which will aid its survival instincts.
The egg-tooth thorn will come off within a day or two, indicating that it has performed its role and is no longer required.
The First Day of the Cygnets
The first day of life will be spent with both parents and any additional hatchlings on the nest. First, the offspring will dry out and imprint on their parents. They’ll spend most of their time sleeping under the pen and occasionally stumbling outside the mother’s perimeter, exploring their new and exciting environment.
At this point, the hatchling will eat relatively little because it has absorbed the remaining egg yolk from inside the egg during the hatching process. Over the first week to ten days, this contributes a large amount of its nutrition. Nonetheless, cygnets will be getting a hold of various objects in their mouths on their first day to see what’s edible and what’s not.
The cygnet will prefer to stay under the mother’s tummy or inside her slightly expanded wings on its first day.
Swan cygnets begin to emit sounds about 48 hours before the hatching time, as previously described in the section Swans Incubating Eggs. However, it is only after they have hatched that their calls become actual vocalizations.
The cygnet’s sounds play a vital role in communication between itself, other cygnets, and its parents.
A silent cacophony of cygnet sounds can be heard around the nest site, as well as numerous less frequent calls from the parents. Both sides are continuing to get to know each other’s phone calls. The cygnets mostly make gentle, quiet sounds at this stage, which signal awareness and ‘contentment.’
Mute Swan cygnets rarely join the water on the first day; instead, they will spend the first twenty-four hours of their lives close to their mother, who will continue to incubate any unhatched eggs and brood her babies. The cob is generally positioned right next to her, providing security and acclimating himself to his new family. He’ll occasionally go for a walk around the territory near the nest to make sure there aren’t any unwanted ‘guests’.
The cygnets will be spotted preening themselves even on the first day. Although their down coat is largely waterproof (they are born with downy fluff rather than visible feathers), it requires a lot of care and attention to stay in good shape. Swans have a preen gland on the tip of their tail, and the oil produced by this gland must be distributed throughout the entire bird in order for the fluffy coat to remain waterproof.
The Second Day of the Cygnets
The youngsters will be snuggled under her tummy or under her slightly expanded wings for safety and warmth on their first night. In most cases, the cob will sleep close next her.
All of the eggs that will hatch will have hatched by this time, therefore the cygnets will be given their first lessons in how to life as a Mute Swan.
On the second day, the first thing that is evident is that there is a lot more commotion and activity surrounding the nest site. The cygnets are no longer resting from the hatching process and will go on more daring explorations.
One of the first things they’ll do is continue to peck at various objects for edibility and consume one or two items, such as grass clippings and the like. They’ll spend less time curled under mum and more time clambering all over her, attempting to get on top of her and explore her back, neck, and other areas.
Climbing is a very positive impulse for the cygnets because they will need to cling onto their parents for safety and warmth while out on the water, especially since they fatigue fast.
The family will take their first and most critical swim on their second day. This can happen at any time of day, from late morning to early afternoon. One of the parents will enter the water first, then summon their children to join them. They invite the cygnets to join them by making a series of high-pitched sounds and elevating their heads.
Young children are fairly uncommon to be hesitant at first, often getting to the water’s edge and then backing away. However, repeated cries from both parents, as well as staring from the pen and cob, would finally draw them into the water.
The cygnets will let out a cacophony of brief trill sounds when they make contact with the water, as if to communicate how excited they are, or perhaps to express how cold the water feels on their little webbed feet!
They are frequently observed racing around aimlessly, straining to stay upright as they wobble around trying to find their equilibrium.
Mum and dad will take them for a 20-minute swim, during which the babies will normally stay in a group, with mum in charge and dad keeping an eye on things at the back. The cygnets will be busy exploring their new environment, pecking and eating a variety of floating plants, pulling at plant stems draped over the water surface, and eating small insects, all the while communicating with their parents through a continual stream of sounds.
Swans will regularly stop what they’re doing, raise their heads, and stare at their parents when they’re young. This behavior lasts for several weeks, but it becomes less often as their growth proceeds, and it is most likely part of the process of forming and sustaining a link with their parents.
The cygnets will begin to weary as they near the end of the swim. This is likely owing to the length of the swim, as well as the fact that their small bodies will have to work harder to maintain their high body temperature (swans are warm blooded, see section Biology of Swans).
When this happens, the babies will try to get out of the water by going onshore or crawling onto the back of their mother or father. This is the explanation for the cygnets’ instinctive climbing on mum, which we mentioned before. The children will need to jump onto one of their parents and ride with them.
The cygnets typically struggle to get out of the water when the family comes ashore. The principal reasons for this are that the little swans are physically exhausted, but also because the bank can be rather steep, and they find it difficult to acquire a purchase on the ground despite having small nails on their webbed feet.
The parents do not physically force or drag them out of the water; instead, they call out to them in a high-pitched voice. If the babies are having difficulty climbing onto the bank for an extended period of time, the intensity of their calling increases, along with mum and dad appealing in unison, frequently from a very small distance.
I’ve seen cygnets have severe difficulties clambering out onto the bank, with the baby attempting to climb out for nearly half an hour – it breaks your heart to see such helpless infants struggle to get out of the water. The parents are right there, almost on top of them, encouragingly shouting out, but there is nothing they can do. Normally, the cygnets who are suffering make it. (Part of the swans’ selection process for a nest site includes ensuring that the banks are ideal for their youngsters’ ability to get into and out of the water – see the Swan Nesting section for more information, but they don’t always get it right.)
When the young arrive to the beach, the first thing they do is preen before taking a well-deserved snooze. If the nest is only a few meters from the water’s edge, the entire family will sleep for a while before proceeding to the nest.
When the family is on the nest, there will be a lot of preening going on. The cygnets will scramble all over the nest, each other, and the pen. Normally, the cob will sit to one side, guarding the entire nest site and defending his family from unwanted attention.
If there are still unhatched eggs at the time of the first swim, the pen may continue to incubate while the cob takes the hatchlings out for their first excursion. However, by this time, all of the eggs that will hatch will have hatched, and the mother will have left the entire nest unattended, which will most likely be abandoned when the family leaves the nest permanently on the third day.
A second, or even a third, swim is generally scheduled before the conclusion of the day. Each swim gets a bit longer in duration, and the family will preen, snooze, and play with each other after each one.
The whole family will usually depart the nest site for the last time after the second night… Their semi-nomadic existence has begun and thats the story and journey of the baby swans.