A male and female Mute Swan float in shallow water next to a muddy shoreline.

Pas de Deux

A pair of swans caught my eye.

No biggie, I thought. Mute swans are a common sight on Lake Allegan. But these two birds’ unusual movements made me look twice.

They dipped their heads repeatedly in and out of the water in a rhythmic, synchronized ritual that I recognized immediately. The swans were about to mate.

I sprinted to my camera and opened a window overlooking the lake. The camera woke up just in time to capture the swans’ graceful coupling. Only… rats. It was cold outside, and I was getting heat distortion as the house’s warm air surrounded my lens. The result was a somewhat soft video with a few downright blurry frames.

Here’s that video anyway. Despite its dodgy focus, what I saw is too lovely not to share.

(For a much better video of mating mute swans, check my resources list below.)

I’m so struck by how the swans stretched their long necks, and then pirouetted, after mating. I feel privileged that I got to see the swans’ beautiful ballet. But…

This took place in late December. Why on Earth were swans mating in Michigan in the winter? It was a warm-ish day, reaching 41° F that afternoon. Had these birds confused a mild December day with the arrival of spring?

I worried that their eventual eggs would hatch in much harsher winter weather. Some quick reading told me that it takes just one or two days for the female swan to create an egg after mating. Incubation lasts about 35 days. I filmed the couple on December 29. So I imagined the eggs would hatch in early February. (Which did turn out to be the most frigid and snowy days of our winter so far.)

Fortunately, I found Kelly Duffin, who’s with the Mute Swan Society. She gave a reassuring answer to my question. Kelly explained that when young swans have decided to become a couple, they may engage in early bonding activity that does not result in laying and tending eggs. Kelly said my swan couple had not been confused by warm winter temperatures, either. It’s the hours of daylight that help swans and other birds tell winter from spring.

Since that December day, I have noticed a swan pair spending most days floating around the island opposite our home. Mostly, they’re eating vegetation along the island’s perimeter. Is it the same couple? I can’t know for sure. What is certain is that I’ll be on the lookout for signs of nest-building. In our area, that seems likely to occur in late March or early April.

One final thought: I feel obligated to mention that our state considers mute swans a non-native, invasive species. The Michigan Audubon Society acknowledges that mute swans provide value by connecting the public to nature. But their Mute Swan Position Statement also outlines what they call the birds’ ‘negative environmental impacts.’ The statement argues for the swans’ removal.

The Mute Swan Society works to counter that narrative. The society supports evolving research recognizing that not all non-native species should be labeled ‘invasive’ in that not all non-natives cause negative ecological impacts. The society addresses common misconceptions about mute swans. They argue against mute swan egg destruction and other removal tactics that the society believes are inhumane and unwarranted.

Last year, the society performed an extensive review of the literature that led to US and Canadian mute swan management (i.e., removal) programs. The society’s review was guided by several scientific advisors – an ornithologist, a naturalist, a biologist, and an ecologist. Its conclusion: The widely held position that mute swans are detrimental is not substantiated by scientific evidence. You can read the society’s literature review here.

The invasive-species debate makes me think of two very different creatures: Honey bees and sea lamprey. Honey bees are a non-native species that competes with native wild bees and other pollinators. But few scientists call them invasive, even though in the words of one Scientific American writer, they can ‘monopolize floral resources.’ A writer for the journal Ecology points out that feral honey bees displace native bees.

Non-native sea lamprey—aka ‘vampire fish’ —decimated Great Lakes commercial trout fishing before the joint US-Canada Great Lakes Fishery Commission began control efforts in the 1950s. No one questions that these creatures are invasive. The fight to contain them continues today, including quite near my home.

I view mute swans as being lots more like honey bees than sea lamprey. They’re non-native but not undesirable. I’ll happily connect with nature, watching and waiting to see another mute swan pas de deux.

Resources and a Related Kids’ Book

If you enjoy watching swans, do spend some time on the Mute Swan Society’s website (www.muteswansociety.org). On the society’s Facebook page, you can watch their video of mute swans mating. You’ll see the full ballet, starting with the pair’s rhythmic head dips. The video is not only considerably clearer than mine, but it also includes the birds’ cygnets—their kids, who react somewhat comically on seeing their parents’ pairing.

Another great mute swan informational resource is wildlife writer Mark Nicolaides’ website, called Swan Life. Find it at www.swanlife.com.

If you’re interested in learning more about honey bees’ ecological impact, here’s the Scientific American article I mentioned above, titled The Problem with Honey Bees. Also, read the Ecology article titled Honey bee introductions displace native bees and decrease pollination of a native wildflower. Here’s that link.

Want to know more about those vampire fish, the sea lamprey? The group Great Lakes Now has a video featuring lamprey eradication work being done by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Watch the video here.

For a related kids’ book, I’m not suggesting a swan romance or anything about the mechanics of avian mating. Instead, I’m recommending Birds: Nature’s Magnificent Flying Machines by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne.

This terrific book explains the biology of bird flight in wonderfully approachable detail. From feathers to flapping, it explains both the anatomy and the movements that enable birds to get and stay aloft. Perfect for kids aged 6-9 or thereabouts, this book will satisfy both kids’ and adults’ curiosity about how birds manage to fly. I learned quite a bit from the book, and I’ll bet you will, too!

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

8 thoughts on “Pas de Deux”

  1. I noticed some swans appeared to be exhibiting courtship behavior recently and it seemed too early— thanks for this, Carol.

  2. Thank you! The swans are beautiful! A note on sea lamphrey. There is growing evidence that they may in fact be a native species. The eradication efforts of sea lamphrey involve poison and are quite cruel. Poisons never just kill the target species. We need to accept all creatures, native or not.

  3. There is a lot on our website under Resources that has succinct articles by a number of biologists and ecologists on why species should not be classified according to their origins, largely because being native does not necessarily mean a species is benign or beneficial, and conversely, non-native species can help others thrive and expand regional biodiversity. Combined with the question of who was there at the “right” time, the fact that we humans have made “native” ecosystems largely inhospitable, and that plants and animals are mobile, and it’s a hard framework to sustain… It has become the default way of categorizing species and has generated a “guilty until proven innocent” narrative around non-natives, which is not only overly simplistic but can be harmful. They also point out that as species have to flee their historical ranges due to climate change they risk being “managed” in the ranges they escape to. Check out http://www.muteswansociety.org/resources Ecological Research. It’s a fascinating field…

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