This painting shows a male Mute Swan in a typical swimming posture, with the inner wings raised to produce “sails”. I was initially reluctant to post it because it is a very simple study in oils of a typical local site. Precisely because there are so many, often quite tame, Mute Swans to be seen in so many areas, there is a glut of paintings, many beautifully backlit and large and highly detailed, indeed, photographic. In fact many are, quite obviously, carefully copied from actual photos. While I personally don’t really like doing it that way myself, it’s not “wrong”, and the results can be far more pleasing than what I did. And the pose really has become something of a visual cliché. But it’s how I saw my subject across the water in sunlight and a friend urged me to post it notwithstanding my misgivings. I love the paintings of the late Sir Peter Scott, who specialized in waterfowl paintings, and often did very broad, very impressionistic work, and so I thought why not. However, my only New Year’s resolution is to focus more on waterfowl, native to North America, and non-native species, and native North American smaller birds, in the year ahead. We’ll see how I do.
The longest feathers involved in producing the familiar “sail” effect, the secondaries, are gracefully curved. As well, the birds hold their neck in a lovely curve, which other swan species sharing their range do less often. Mature Mute Swans have a highly characteristic bright orange beak (slightly paler in the female) and a black, knob-like structure at top (larger in the male), that tapers to the small eyes.
Included with other swans, ducks and geese in the avian family, Anatidae, Mute Swans are native to the temperate and northern latitudes of much of Eurasia, but because of their lovely appearance they have long been kept captive, or semi-captive, and not surprisingly have established naturalized populations in various parts of North America, Australasia and southern Africa. Beloved for their beauty it is not unusual for them to become conditioned to the presence of people to the point of tameness, although they can also be quite wild and wary.
As much as they are loved by many, myself included, in North America they are disliked, at times to the point of extreme animosity, by many conservationists, birders and environmentalists. Some wildlife management agencies even resort to lethal culling, slaughtering large numbers, in some cases trying to eradicate them. The accusations I’ve heard leveled against them is that they pull up vegetation and chase native waterfowl, such as Canada Geese. But then I hear that there are too many Canada Geese, and in my experience nesting Mute Swans are not necessarily aggressive against ducks. And, they co-exist with the same, or similar, species of plants and animals in their native lands, so although I have asked, I have never been told by their detractors what makes the same, or similar, species so vulnerable to Mute Swans on this side of the Atlantic, but not on the other side? In fact human activity has so “Europeanized” much of North America that they are right at home in habitat extremely similar to that inhabited in their native lands. And since marshes tend to fill in as emergent vegetation builds up a foundation for grasses and ultimately trees, and yet are themselves necessary for many wildlife species and often endangered habitat, why is it wrong for Mute Swans, like Muskrats who make channels through emergent vegetation used by other wildlife, and Beavers who create ponds also used by other wildlife species, to help maintain some open water? It’s not that I approve of introducing exotic species into environments they would not otherwise inhabit (although given the number of Eurasian waterfowl and gull species that are increasingly establishing themselves in North America I would not assume that Mute Swans would not colonize the western hemisphere without being physically brought here), but I would prefer legal bans on such imports in the first place, not demonizing the species involved for just existing).
But most strange to me is that the same agencies are often happy with putting Trumpeter Swans into the environment, which do the same things as the Mutes, plus are noisier! They have extensive introduction programmes in play to return Trumpeter Swans to regions, as nesting species, where they possible never even previously nested, and to habitat far more like Europe than the virgin forests that existed when Trumpeter Swans nested in the east, if they ever did. I’ve never had a sensible answer as to why that makes sense. In my area the two species both nest, neither being very migratory, although in common with many bird species they may form large post-nesting flocks.
Fossils of birds that seem ancestral to Mute Swans that were found in the western U.S. date from about ten thousand years ago, and, like ancestral horses and a very large number of other large animal species, became extinct in North America around the time humans arrived. Given that DNA analysis suggests that the swan species most closely related to Mute Swans is the Black-necked Swan (C. melancoryphus), native only to South America, it seems at least possible Mute Swans originated in the western hemisphere, moving up from South America, through North America and across into Eurasia, before becoming extinct in North America, along with so many other large animals, near the end of the last ice age. Animal populations are forever expanding and contracting their ranges and while humans were doubtless the agent by which Mutes arrived “back” into our hemisphere, I don’t see why that makes them undesirable.
In spite of their name they can vocalize, but it is mostly hissing, grunts and whistles. They can get aggressive in protecting the nest and if you ever feel threatened by one, maintain eye contact, make yourself look big (hands up!) and slowly back away. They’re big but you’re a lot bigger. They often nest in plain view, and sometimes many will nest in the same large marsh, forming a loose-knit colony.
The painting is in oils on a Russian birch panel and measures 20 by 24 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada