Monday, 13 June 2011

The Beauty of the Swan

So blessed to have been able to spend some time with a family of swans today and to observe their feeding habits and how protective the adults are with their young. A powerful bird with many legends and folklore attached to it, this is just some of the information I've found on swans for your enjoyment.

Scots Gaelic: Eala
Irish: Ela
Welsh: Alarch
Breton: Alarc’h
Old Celtic: Alargh
Anglo Saxon: Swan

Swan Facts


Family: Anatidae
Subfamily: Cygninae
Species: Whooper, Trumpeter, Tundra, Mute, Black-necked, Black, Berwick, and Coscoroba

A male swan is a cob; a female is a pen, and the young are called cygnets.

Swans are the largest of the aquatic birds, closely related to the Goose. They are known for their grace and beauty and have long been considered “ornamental birds” which float on ponds in zoos, parks, and botanical gardens. Swans are long necked and web-footed. The most common swan, the Mute Swan, is a large, all white bird with a pink bill that ends in a black knob. The bill of a swan is so sensitive that it serves as an underwater feeler.

Swans have the longest neck of any bird, with 23-25 neck vertebrae. Swans have as many as 25,000 feathers. They are long-lived birds, and can live up to twenty years in the wild, and even fifty years in captivity!


Swans prefer wetlands and land surrounded by water, where they build their nests on mounds. The Tundra swan builds its nest in the tundra wetlands, where they maintain a territory of one square mile and defend it from other swans. Swans prefer cooler environments and avoid extreme heat. The Tundra and Whooper nest all across northern America, the Arctic Islands and Northern Russia. The Black-necked and Coscoroba are found from Brazil southward. The Black Swan lives in Australia and New Zealand. The Mute Swan resides in Europe.

Diet and Feeding Habits

In the wild, swans feed on the starchy roots and tubers of aquatic plants. Their scissor- like bills have cutting edges that can tear at the underwater grasses. They can submerge from ten to twenty seconds at a time, and the Bewick Swans for up to thirty seconds. Due to the length of their long, sinewy necks, the birds can dip their heads by curving their necks into the water, and lay their chins flat on the bottom, continuously swallowing. For deeper waters, the swan will up-end itself to reach the bottom. Swans can also eat grains on the land, but must jerk its head backwards to shake foot into its gullet. Most species of swan are vegetarian, but the Mute Swan has been known to eat fish.

Swans have a gland just above their eyes that enables them to drink salt water. The gland removes salt from the water and concentrates it into a solution that is excreted from the nostrils, which the bird can shake its head to clear. In captivity, swans are fed wheat, barley, maize, lettuce, watercress, endive, cabbage, grass, and even biscuits and brown bread.


Swans migrate in winter, in flocks of twenty to forty birds. The cygnets travel in their parent’s flock for at least a year, in order to learn the route, where to feed, rest, etc. They have been clocked between 35-50 mph in the air, and prefer to fly at night. They can fly at heights of 28,000 feet, and travel over 2,000 miles, often over sea.


Around half of the young birds who nest in the far North perish on their migration south because they are forced to leave before they are strong enough. Swans are also susceptible to fungal diseases, particularly aspergillosis, parasites, and viruses.


Danish Tale

The Wild Swan, by Hans Christian Andersen: ( See Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales and Stories ).

The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen. An awkward young cygnet, is called an ugly duckling by the other young waterfowl in the lake. Seeing his reflection in the watery surface, he can’t help but agree, and hangs his young head in shame. The other birds refuse to play with the pathetic creature, and he is left to himself. At last his mother finds him, and assures him that this phase will pass, and he will grow into the most beautiful bird of all - a magnificent snowy white swan. And as time passes, so he does.

This is a familiar tale for every child, reassuring them that beauty is from within, and not a matter of outward appearance. This healing tale has been told for over a century, to children who feel isolated, or that they don’t fit in, teaching them to look within to find their own inner beauty and radiate it. When their time comes, they will be transformed, and have the grace, beauty and eloquence of a majestic white swan.

Native American

In Navajo tradition, the Great White Swan can call up the Four Winds. The Great Spirit will use swans to work its will.


The aborigines saw the Black Swans as the wives of their All Father.


In Ainu folk tales, the swan was an angelic bird who lived in heaven. When the Ainu fought amongst themselves killing all but one boy, the Swan descended from heaven, transformed into a woman, and reared the boy to manhood. She then married him to preserve the Ainu race.


It was the swan that lay the Cosmic Egg on the waters, from which Brahma sprang. The Swan was the vehicle of Brahma’s wife, Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, Education, and Music. In Hindu tradition, swans represent the perfect union, and the spirit of Brahma.


In Greek tradition, the Swan is the symbol of the Muses. The swan also has erotic connotations - Zeus seduced Leda in the form of a swan, and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, had a swan-drawn chariot.

The swan, as a symbol of music, is also dedicated to Apollo, who was said to transform into a swan.

The constellation Cygnus, depicts a swan sailing down the Milky Way.


The Vila, Serbian nymphs, take the shape of swans and serpents.


The Norse Valkyries often take the shape of swans and they fly, singing, through the air.


Swan Maidens were the subject of the Russian composer, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake”.

Celtic Tradition

In Celtic tradition the Swan is associated with deities of healing waters and the sun. They are associated with music, love, purity and the soul. They are shape-shifters, can take human form, and have mastered the elements of water, earth and air. They can always be recognized by the gold or silver chain that hangs around their neck.

Among Druids, the Swan represents the soul, and is associated with the Festival of Samhain. The swan aids us in traveling to the Otherworld. Swans are also sacred to Bards, and their skin and feathers were used to make the tugen, the ceremonial Bardic Cloak.

Irish tales

Swans appear throughout Irish folklore. An Otherworldly bird, they are often the disguise of Fairy Women. At certain times of year, a swan maiden can transform herself back into a human, such as Summer Solstice, Beltaine or Samhain, when the veils between the worlds are thin.

The White Swans of the Wilderness were children of the Tuatha de Danaan, who settled Ireland, and became the sidhe after the invasion of the Milesians.

Native American tradition

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, who collected Native American tales from elders in the Choctaw, Lakota, Seneca, Aztec, Yaqui, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mayan traditions, Swans represented “Grace”.

Swan tells Dragonfly in legend, “I learned to surrender my body to the power of Spirit and was taken to where the future lives. I saw many wonders high on Sacred Mountains and because of my faith and my acceptance I have been changed. I have learned to accept the state of grace.” Swan is the bird who may enter the Dreamtime and bring back knowledge and healing to the tribe. Swan medicine “teaches us to be at one with all planes of consciousness, and to trust in Great Spirit’s protection.” (Medicine Cards, pages 192-195)


The swan is a totem of beauty and grace. As in the story of the Ugly Duckling, it connotes inner beauty as well. If Swan is your totem animal, you are emotionally sensitive, and empathic towards the feelings of others, and you draw people to you. The pure white swan is a solar symbol, whereas the Australian Black Swan is a nocturnal symbol. The swan, with its long neck, acts as a bridge between the worlds, making it an oracular bird. Being a cool weather bird, its direction is North. Swans are excellent totems for children, those connected to the Fairy Realm, poets, bards, mystics, and dreamers. (Animal Speak, page 196)


The swan is master of the elements Earth, Air and Water, and is and excellent guide to the therapeutic powers of these elements. Many healers use a swan feather in smudging and healing ceremonies. A swan feather tied to an instrument such as a harp would be a powerful adjunct to music therapy.


In the Medicine Cards, pulling the Swan card tells you to “pay attention to your hunches, gut knowledge, and female intuitive side.”

In Celtic lore, pulling the swan card can mean poetic inspiration from the Otherworld. It can also mean love and transformation or a soul level experience.

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