12 days a (wildlife) Christmas - Seven swans a-swimming

Whooper Swan - Danny Green/2020VISION

Christmas is in the air and here in Ipswich we’re starting to feel festive. Join our Wild Learning Officer in the run up to Christmas by celebrating some of the town’s wild spaces and species as we adapt the well-known words of 12 days of Christmas. Traditionally for the seventh day of Christmas we’d be receiving seven swans a-swimming and this time, we’re sticking to the lyrics!

Swans are one of our much loved birds and we are graced with three different species in the UK, mute, whooper and Bewick’s swan. Although easily identified as swans, telling them apart can be easier said than done. Mute swans help us out with an easily identifiable orange beak that has a black mass on top near the bird’s forehead, known as a knob, which is where mute swans get their other, perhaps less preferable name, of a knob swan from. Another way to tell them apart is that mute swans stay in the UK all year round with whooper and Bewick’s swans journeying huge distances to their summer breeding grounds near the arctic, so time of year might offer a helping hand.

Telling the difference between whooper swans and Bewick’s swans is where it gets a litter trickier. Although they both have yellow beaks, Bewick’s swans are much shorter than a whooper swan and their necks are straighter too. Another handy hint to help tell the difference is looking at the amount of yellow that the swans have on their beaks. The flatter slope of a whooper swan creates a triangle of yellow and is said to look like a wedge of cheese, with Bewick’s swans having more of a rounded curved beak, thought to be similar to a knob of butter. Sorry if these identifiable features have now made stomachs rumble.

Many years ago, swans were very valuable and receiving seven swans as told by our 12 days of Christmas song, would have been quite the Christmas treat. Swans were traded between nobility and owners of mute swans, the Vintners and Dyers were duty bound to mark them, with all unmarked swans being the Crown’s by default.

First started in the 12th century and a process that still continues today, mute swans were marked in a process called “swan-upping” carried out by the Queen’s Head Swan Master, (what a fantastic job title to have). Today, “swan-upping” is used as a conservation tool helping keep track of population numbers and allowing individuals to be monitored and health checks carried out. Since swan-upping began, only twice in its history has the census had to take a hiatus, once in 2012 due to extremely high water levels and this year due to COVID-19. 

So this winter whilst you’re out on your walks this winter, why not have a look to see if you can find any swans and see if you are able to spot those triangles of cheese or knobs of butter on beaks and tell the difference between our swan species.