Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle
A juvenile mute swan stands in a shallow area of a lake. Note the brownish coloring among the white feathers. Older juveniles can have extensive dusky-brown- ish highlights on the body, as is the case here. Juveniles usually have pale, pinkish bills, but as this photo was taken during the month of March, this older juvenile’s bill had turned orange.
A juvenile mute swan stands in a shallow area of a lake. Note the brownish coloring among the white feathers. Older juveniles can have extensive dusky-brown- ish highlights on the body, as is the case here. Juveniles usually have pale, pinkish bills, but as this photo was taken during the month of March, this older juvenile’s bill had turned orange.

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This week I am featuring a huge bird which is a very rare visitor to Oklahoma, the mute swan. And, there is a mute swan currently making its residence at Lake Overholser in Oklahoma City. At least, it was still being reported there Friday after hanging around for several weeks.

Specifically, it’s been residing at a water area below the dam. So, I thought now would be a good time to feature the mute swan.

In 2014, a young mute swan spent a few weeks at a lake in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. There was some question as to whether or not the bird was wild, or, as some believed, a bird that may have escaped captivity. I made the trip and was able to observe the bird’s behavior — on land, in the water and in the air — and it was quite extraordinary.

And, based on the bird’s behavior, its age and the fact that it left after several weeks, I believe the bird was wild. I was fortunate enough to be there when it took flight. If you’ve ever seen how a duck explodes from the water straight into the air when it takes flight, well, the mute swan does not do that.

This massive bird needs a long takeoff area and must run on the water for quite a distance, flapping its giant wings before lifting off. The whole process takes about eight seconds. Seeing it up close and personal was spectacular. The sound was overwhelming, like a jet taking off.

It really is something to behold. In fact, the National Audubon Society reports that a mute swan’s wing- beats may be heard as much as a mile away! I believe it. I was taking photos when a kayaker got too close for comfort and the bird took to the air, which is more evidence that the bird was wild. It made several flybys much to the delight of people gathered nearby.

After spending quite some time trying to get just the right photo, I was able to get a nice flight shot (see photo) on its third and final flyby. The evening light was beaming off of the lake just right — it was really something special.

I had seen mute swans in the past, but they were domesticated and resided at suburban parks and such. And, although they are beautiful birds, in certain places, mute swans are considered a nuisance. The mute swan is a Eurasian species and is not native to the United States.

It was introduced to North America from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Individual birds were imported to many areas of the continent as an adornment to city parks and large estates, and for zoos and aviculture collections. All North American feral mute swan populations originated from the release or escape of individuals from these early captive flocks, according to the Cornell Lab.

It is considered somewhat invasive and a nuisance to some native birds, however, and wildlife officials in some states are attempting to control local populations. While I’ve read that mute swans can be aggressive toward other birds, the swan that I observed resided with a flock of Canadian geese and got along well.

Appearance

A very large, long-necked waterbird, the mute swan can grow to 5 feet in length, from bill to tail. Adults are all white, with a bright orange bill and black skin about the face. They also have a fleshy, black basal knob at the upper base of the bill (see photo).

The knobs of male mute swans swell during the breeding season and become noticeably larger than those of females. The rest of the year, the difference between the sexes is not obvious, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Immature birds often have pale pinkish bills, but they become more orange as they become adults. Older juveniles can have extensive dusky-brownish highlights on the body (see photo).

Additionally, the heads and necks adults and juveniles may be stained leafy green to rufous by the algae and iron-containing substrates in which they forage.

Range

The largest populations of mute swans occur in the Northeast, and around the Great Lakes region. There are other small populations in the Northwest, and they rarely stray far from those areas.

Habitat

Bodies of water from ponds to lakes and everything in between.

Food

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, mute swans eat submerged aquatic vegetation, along with some aquatic animals.

Odds and ends

• Mute swans aren’t actually “mute,” they’re voices are hoarse, and much quieter than those of North America’s native swans.

• According to the Cornell Lab, mute swans form long-lasting pair bonds, and, their reputation for monogamy, along with their elegant white plumage, has helped establish them as a symbol of love in many cultures.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

RANDY’S NATURAL WORLD