The mute swan is an odd and enigmatic bird. The main thing that makes them hard to fathom is that they’re neither truly wild nor truly tame. They tolerate the company of humans, or at least some do, even to the extent of begging for food. But if the human pushes this sense of familiarity too far they react aggressively, making it quite clear that they are, in fact, wild creatures and not to be messed with.
The aggression is a complete bluff. A swan has no means of hurting a human. A peck from that blunt beak is about as painful as a pinch from a child and the stories of them breaking a person’s arm with a blow from their wing are complete myths. The mute swan is probably the heaviest bird in the world that’s capable of flight. In order to achieve this, it has had to make some evolutionary sacrifices. One of these is that its wing bones are light and brittle, filled with tiny pockets of air. A swan’s wing bone would break long before a human arm.
I have watched ornithologists catching swans in order to ring them. Initially, there’s a noisy fight in which the ornithologist gets slapped in the face several times and suffers a number of innocuous pecks. Then, suddenly, the swan realises its bluff has been called and goes into a submission posture, stretching its neck along the ground, and limply suffering the ringing process without further fight. It reminds me of a sycophantic dog rolling on its back, looking for forgiveness for its sins.
The half wild, half tame nature of mute swans is usually explained by saying they are all descended from tame birds imported by the Normans to decorate their castle moats and provide a centrepiece for banquets. It’s a nice theory and the Normans certainly worked hard at adding to our native fauna. They were responsible for introducing rabbits, fallow deer, and pheasants.
But modern genetics is a great debunker of nice theories and it now seems that mute swans have been part of our wild native bird population for far longer. However, this fact doesn’t totally destroy the theory — it’s likely the population of wild mute swans in pre-medieval Ireland was quite small and possibly migratory. There’s no doubt the Normans did bring large numbers of semi-domesticated swans from England and Wales whose genes are present in our modern birds.
The fact remains that there is something slightly off-putting about a wild bird that likes to hold its own when it encounters people. Swans question our notions of our superiority as a species.
Its large size, brilliant colours and striking ‘eyes’ on the upper side of the wings and the subtle pattern of black and silver on the under-wings make it a contender for the title of Ireland’s showiest butterfly. Originally a woodland species they are common and widespread nowadays and often found in gardens, which provide them with rich sources of nectar. They are fond of buddleia later in the summer. In Ireland they have one brood in the year and they hibernate. The winged adult can live for 10 or 11 months, which is a long life for a butterfly. The eggs are green and the caterpillars are black with white speckles.
They feed on stinging nettle leaves. The ‘eyes’ on the wings are a defensive mechanism. If a group of butterflies are disturbed during hibernation they flutter the wings rapidly and also make a hissing sound by rubbing the front and rear wing together.