curiosity about the ways of the world

Swan watch: a parents’ guide to survival

They learn from their mistakes…


It was a daily show: out of the pond, up the bank, around the house. But now our birds have flown. Or, to be more precise, they have walked, paddled and waddled somewhere downstream. Where? Why? How? We do not know for sure but it happens much the same every year. Until this year.

“He’s back!”  Maybe we’re just a sentimental lot but that felt like good news.  Word spread quickly round the family lifting the mood on a cold morning.

Indeed, I think, it would have taken a hard heart not to be cheered by the sight of the reunion. For two or three days – it felt longer – we had been wondering how the single mother would cope.  It’s hard not to project our human emotions across the pond.

Every spring, as I’ve reported before [Swanwatching], we feel privileged when two mating swans claim their space on ‘our’ stretch of water. And every year we watch from a respectful distance as the ritual unfolds: the courting dance, the clinching act, the nest building, the sitting and waiting. We humans can relate to all of that.

So this year when – as several times before – the male departed we watched and wondered and waited.  After almost 20 years of sharing the pond with generations of swans we are gradually learning to expect the unexpected. But this year brought a humbling discovery for human parents. 

Learning from mistakes

Swan husbands are thoroughly modern parents helping incubate eggs, raise chicks and defend the nest so for female swans it is not worth the risk of finding a second mate…


So…swans make long lasting relationships, not necessarily for life, but there’s more to the matchmaking than anthropomorphic romance. The longer they stay together, it seems, the more successful they become at rearing their young.  Perhaps that explains the strange ritual we have observed over several summers at Pond Cottage. But first the eggs must hatch. And this spring for a while that seemed unlikely.

Some years for reasons we do not know, the male swan departs leaving his partner alone on the nest. The first time it happened we were astonished at how well the female coped.  She successfully hatched and supported three cygnets then flew off as soon as she could after the moulting season leaving her young to surrogate parents – us, the sentimental pair in wellies on the bank [more on First Catch Your Swan]

The second time – in last year’s Covid-bleak mating season – the male disappeared but the forlorn female eventually followed without hatching her eggs.

So this year, we feared the worst when the male again took off as a long, cold spring dragged on into May.  We couldn’t get near enough the nest to deliver food to the female . She sat without eating or respite, and we wandered uselessly about trying not to feel our way into the nest.

Then he returned, and oh my!  After days of sitting almost motionless on the nest, the female suddenly rose and flew across the pond to greet her mate.  With much splashing and wing beating they shared a meal and swam what seemed like a celebratory lap of the pond before Mrs Swan got back to sitting and Mr Swan resumed his watch.

Coming and going and coming again

Eight fluffy cygnets appeared on the pond several weeks later, and joined their parents at the feeding place. The adults now hissing at us as we supplemented the weed in the pond with scoops of grain. Pond life is precarious.

In previous years we have seen numbers dwindle until there were only three or four cheeping little birds. Then, we have come to expect, the parents depart with the little ones before the moulting season begins – we don’t know where they go but always assume that somehow they make their way downstream to Loch Leven – that great expanse of water around the island where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. These days it’s home to hordes of wild birds. Safety in numbers.

We were sad but not surprised when the whole family disappeared just over a week later. We never see them go so we don’t know how the adults transport eight little ones unable to fly, or swim very far. But that, we thought, was that for 2021.

Ray finds his tractor path blocked by the swan parade
Swan right of way

Then suddenly they reappeared in late July. Two parents and eight now very big cygnets. Hungry big cygnets. They ate huge quantities of weed and grain. And left piles of evidence on the banks, on the lawn, on the pathway to the house. They came looking for us to feed them if we weren’t out in time. They waited for Ray outside his workshop, they blocked his progress in the tractor.  Hissing but also strangely friendly, they became ‘our family’. The daily walks grew more frequent, and more challenging. The parents changed routes and roles, seeming to give the young their turn at leadership.

Why do they do it? It’s a mystery. We have observed this curious exercise routine in previous years (that story is HERE) but this was the most dramatic display – ten swans in a dancing line. White feathers on green grass. The adult swans, obviously moulting, would not be able to fly for another month. I can find no reference to dancing, parading swans in books or online. I tweeted (well of course) a question to the RSPB and Scottish Wildlife Trust. And if/when they reply I shall post the answer. But perhaps the most intriguing explanation lies in this short article on the BirdSpot website [Do Swans Mate for Life?].  These parents have learned from mistakes.

Swan duos also learn from their mistakes each time they raise a new brood of cygnets. As each year passes their chances of reproductive success increases.


Meanwhile our grass is greener and cleaner (which is a relief as we open our garden to Scotland’s Garden Scheme visitors!). But the pond lies silent and empty and we look forward to the swans return in January. If not before…

The memory lives on as ‘our swans’ march and dance to music by Bobby Perman.

Looking forward to our next open day: Sunday 19 September 2-5pm


  1. fay

    Thank you! Hoping for a ‘happily almost ever after…’ to report later.

    When we had our first single mother and her 3 young ones ringed (about 12 years ago I think) we discovered an intriguing back story about the missing father. He was not a model modern father. But a sad tale would follow about our young male – after spending the winter with us he flew into a power line on his maiden flight away from the safety of our pond. We wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for his ID bracelet.

  2. David Gow

    What a delightful swan song of a tale of intrigue and raw and refined feeling told with deft delicacy and leaving one asking for a sequel with happy denouement..

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