Swans are bluffers and can't actually hurt you

I’M NOT afraid of swans. I know they’re consummate bluffers and that although they put on a great show of aggression they can’t actually hurt you.

They have blunt beaks designed for grazing on vegetation and the worst damage they can inflict on human flesh is the equivalent of a child’s pinch.

They can, of course, give you a slap with their wings but the mute swan is one of the world’s heaviest flying birds and to save weight and allow it to get airborne it has developed very light wing bones with a sort of honeycomb structure inside them. This means that the wing bone will break if they hit you with enough force to do any real damage. A swan with a broken wing will almost certainly die and they don’t take that risk.

Having said all that a swan did succeed in making me a little nervous the other day. I was out on the river in an open, Canadian style canoe. It’s a frail craft with low free-board that can be quite easily capsized. I paddled into a swan’s territory. There was no sign of the female. Presumably she was hunkered down on a nest in the reeds incubating her eggs. But the male was on patrol and he was very, very cross about my sudden appearance.

He fluffed up his wings to double his size, stretched out his neck parallel to the water surface and charged, his large webbed feet paddling frantically so he built up enough speed to develop a bow wave. He made strange hissing noises to add to the effect. Of course, he aborted his charge about a metre from the canoe and I just ignored him, apart from telling him he was all bluff.

This happened three or four times before it dawned on the swan that I wasn’t getting the message and he’d have to find a new tactic. He withdrew about 20 or 30 metres, lined himself up with the canoe and went into a take-off run. Neck out-stretched, wings thrashing the water, feet paddling madly to increase the velocity.

This charge was also aborted at the last moment but I did pay a bit more attention to it. If he’d persisted for one second longer, either deliberately or accidentally, he’d have tipped the canoe over and I would be floundering around in a rather cold river. And he was getting crosser and crosser.

No, I’m not afraid of swans, but he was lining up for another semi-airborne attack and my peaceful paddle up the river was no longer very peaceful or even enjoyable. I turned the canoe and headed back out of the swan’s territory. He cruised around, still puffed up, looking rather pleased with himself. A job well done. An intruder vanquished, the nest protected — he had to pull out all the stops but the bluff had not been called. Smug bird.


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