The Magnificent Mute

Mute swans are beautiful birds. There are few sights as impressive as a male mute, wings cocked, protecting his youngsters. The family below were on a very small lake at RSPB Fen Drayton and just before I took the pictures below, the male had launched a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat at the other side of the lake, around 40m away. I couldn’t see who the interloper was but the sight and the sound of the big male as he raced across the lake, wings outstretched and beating on the water, must have been extremely intimidating. It was unnerving from where I was standing!


The male on the left is back with his brood after nullifying the threat. But he’s still got his wings cocked.

The mute (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) is one of the biggest flying birds with a wingspan greater than two metres and an average weight for the male of approximately 11kg, it is a very impressive bird indeed and a group in the air flying close by is a real jaw dropper.

In the UK mute swans belong to the monarch and no one else is allowed to take them. They are marked every year, a practice that was originally identifying them  for the monarchs table, but I think Her Maj’s palate has evolved since then and eating swans is, fortunately, no longer fashionable.

It is native to the UK and a resident breeder but when things get too cold on mainland Europe winter migrants can show up here too. They tend to remain in their home territory all year round but can also form groups in the winter and move to a winter feeding ground, presumably this behaviour is driven by the temperature, availability of food and safety in numbers.

The ‘mute‘ in ‘mute swan’ is apparently derived from the fact that the mute swan is not as noisy as other swans. I’ve strayed too close to a nest before though, and at that moment mute was probably the last adjective to spring to mind as they voiced their discontent by making a violent hissing sound to warn me off. I took the hint and retreated as swiftly as possible.

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25 responses to “The Magnificent Mute

  1. Very nice photos and history about these swans, Finn. We have only The Whooper Swan around here, but see them (and hear them) only in the spring.

    • Whoopers are also beautiful birds! (In fact, I think all swans are magnificent). We have whoopers visiting from Siberia in the winter, maybe the ones you see have left here and are heading home. They’re incredible creatures, they have been recorded on migration flying at heights above 8000m!

  2. I am contemplating having a small dam made so I can have swans and your post has really inspired me!

  3. Yet again an interesting post with lovely photos, Finn. Thank you. When you say the mutes are marked, do you mean ringed? And by whom? I wonder how many other species are affected by such outdated laws. Your mention of it reminded me of the rules governing who (i.e., from what social station) could keep various kinds of hawks in Medieval times.

    • Hello Robert, your point about ‘marked’ is a good one and I wondered exactly what the marking entailed. I imagine it was before ringing and the crown would have used its own officials to do the marking.

      There was a strict codification around hawk ownership, I know that only the most senior nobles could fly peregrines. A number of expressions are derived from falconry, did you know that the ladies weren’t allowed to fly ‘serious’ birds like peregrines but had to fly the much smaller merlin. Merlins could only catch small prey such as larks, and that’s where we get the term ‘larking about’ from, for less serious activities! Another one is to ‘cadge a lift’ – a ‘cadge’ was a wooden frame on which the birds for the days expedition were carried by a servant out into the field.

      • How interesting! I’m familiar with the falconry terms (and codes), and I use the expressions, but had never made the connection between the two. As for the mutes, do I take it from your remarks that they are no longer marked and that the Crown no longer takes an active interest in them?

      • I think these activities are regarded as archaic these days, although the swans still technically belong to the Crown, I believe the interest is more passive. I hope so.

  4. Pingback: English swan, Scottish Occupy penguin | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  5. Indeed Finn, they are far from mute, these Mutes. The sounds I once recorded from the Somerset Levels approaching and immediately after dusk one February, clearly illustrated otherwise. Grunts, sneezes, hisses, and the sound from several dozen swan’s wing beats as they flew overhead and landed nearby, are with me for eternity.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell

  6. Lovely photos of splendid birds. I saw several flying overhead earlier this week and it was a fine sight.

    • Hello Lorna, it is an awesome sight. It’s impressive when they’re up high but when they’re low down on final approach it’s breathtaking. When I was a kid I used to get a real buzz watching airliners landing, these days a squadron of airborne swans has the same effect 🙂

  7. Beautiful birds. The second photo is exquisite!

  8. What beautiful photos; these are publication quality. We have the noisy Trumpeter variety of swans, and I was surprised how much they do sound like trumpets.

  9. Christine J. Watson

    My nephew, Alan Wright, sent me this linkI it is beautiful. Thank you very much for sharing your experience. I shall forward it to frfiends and family. – Christine Watson, Danvers, MA, USA

  10. Such beautiful photographs, Finn…and interesting narrative, as well. Your normal fare, my friend…thank you. 🙂

  11. The national bird of Denmark, they are so graceful

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