A mute swan pair with eight cygnets.
A mute swan pair with eight cygnets.
Courtesy: NOAA

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Field markings: 60 inches long, with a wingspan of 60-plus inches. All white feathers on the body, red-orange bill with a black knob at the base, black legs and feet. Female is slightly smaller than male and has a smaller black knob on the bill.
Habitat: Freshwater and saltwater ponds, coastal marshes, and coastal ponds.
Seasonal appearance: All year; winters in coves on Narragansett Bay.


The mute swan is a large, white bird common in both the salt and fresh waters of Rhode Island. They are not mute, as the name would imply; they make hissing sounds while guarding territory. With bills pointed down when swimming, their long necks form a distinguishing "S" shape, making them easy to identify from a distance. They fly with their necks extended, and the stiff feathers of their wings create a swooshing noise that can be heard up to a half mile away. Heavy birds, they require a long runway to become airborne.

Life History and Behavior

Mute swans pair when they are three to four years old and mate for life. Both the male and female build nests in marshes, brackish ponds, and shallow water out of cattails, smooth cordgrass, salt hay grass, and bullrushes. Males are territorial and defend their nests aggressively. Mute swans often swim with their heads back and wings arched. This behavior, called busking, is an aggressive display to defend their territory. During the first year of life the gray, immature swans, called cygnets, can be seen following the adults in close proximity.

Mute swans feed on pondweed, wild celery, green seaweed, and aquatic invertebrates. In the winter, they primarily feed on eelgrass, actually uprooting the grass rather than grazing as other birds do. This can result in damage to or loss of eelgrass beds. They can consume 8 pounds or more of vegetation per day. Swans feed like dabbling ducks, tipping forward and extending their long necks into the water. They have small tooth-like edges on the inside of their bills to grasp vegetation.

Critter Facts Mute swans are not native to North America. They were imported from Europe for their beauty and introduced to the New York City area in the late 1800s. The introduced population increased in the early 1900s when escapees began to breed in the wild.
A mute swan swimming on a coastal bay.
A mute swan swimming on a coastal bay.
Courtesy: E. Marks, Audubon Society of Rhode Island

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.