Theirs is a story of vast journeys, breathtaking landscapes, and a battle to survive which traces the wild extremes of our global climate.
Bewick’s swan profile
Latin name: Cygnus columbianus
Family: Swans, ducks and geese (Anatidae)
Diet: At their summer breeding grounds in Russia, Bewick’s fatten themselves up before their Autumn migration on a diet of grasses, sedges and aquatic plants. In Europe, they have adapted over the past century to feed on the spoils of harvest, particularly root crops, cereals and grasses.
Bewick’s are the smallest swans to visit Europe, but each year these extraordinary birds battle their way over thousands of kilometres of desolate tundra, wooded wilderness and vast lakes and seas. Spending the summer on the Russian tundra in order to feed and breed, they head to north-west Europe every year to escape the icy grip of the Arctic winter.
These birds really are a magnificent visitor to our skies. We’ve seen birds who’ve returned to Slimbridge for 28 years, some of which have totalled over 140,000 miles over their lifetimes. But each year we’re seeing fewer and fewer returning, and it’s the same across Europe.
Why we love Bewick’s
- The remarkable birds can live for almost 30 years, and they mate for life.
- Bewick’s swan pairs typically remain together until the death of one partner, and we’ve known pairs to have stayed together for up to 21 years. Divorce among Bewick’s swan pairs is known to be rare; indeed, a WWT study of over 4,000 pairs over a 50 year period indicates only two incidences of divorce.
- Bewick’s swans often return to the same wetlands each year.
- More than half of adult Bewick’s swans return to the same site each winter. This fact, combined with the distinct markings on their bills which allow researchers to identify them individually, led to WWT’s long running study of Bewick’s swans.
- Bewick’s swans care for their offspring for a relatively long time.
- Cygnets remain with their parents throughout their first winter, staying within calling distance as they are guided along their first migration.
Spotting Bewick’s in the UK
Bewick’s arrive in the UK from mid-October, wintering here until the following March before migrating once again to their breeding grounds on the Russian tundra. Bewick’s arrive in their greatest numbers in eastern England, as well as the Severn estuary and in smaller numbers in Lancashire and Ireland. WWT centres at Slimbridge and Welney offer some of the best opportunities to see these birds up close, from the comfort of our hides.
Threats to Bewick’s
Since 1995 the number of Bewick’s swans making the migration from arctic Russia to northern Europe has plummeted by nearly a half – from 29,000 to just 18,000.
As winter comes they set off from their breeding grounds, often flying with cygnets as young as 12 weeks old.
Among the threats to Bewick’s are:
- Loss of habitat including wetlands
- Illegal hunting
- The presence of wind turbines and power pylons in their flight path
- Climate change
WWT and Bewick’s swans
In 1964 Sir Peter Scott, founder of WWT, realised that each individual Bewick's swan could be identified by the unique pattern of yellow and black on its bill, and so started one of the longest-running single species studies in the world.
Our Flight of the Swans expedition aims to find out more about the plight of the Bewick’s, and to inspire support for conservation efforts all along their flyway. But the flight is just another step in the story of this species.
Our relationship with the endangered Bewick's spans five decades and you too can be a part of it.
Why take action today?
- The plight of Bewick’s swans is typical of many species: Bewick’s swans are one of many species of migratory birds that breed in the Arctic and overwinter in temperate regions that are currently undergoing population declines, including red-breasted geese, Greenland white-fronted geese and taiga bean geese. Action taken to conserve the wetlands frequented by Bewick’s will help halt the decline of many other species.
- We have a national responsibility to protect Bewick’s Swans, particularly as Britain has internationally important sites for the species – particularly at the Ouse Washes, where up to a quarter of the Northwest European wintering population can be found in mid-winter.
- Conserving Bewick’s habitats also benefits us: Wetlands are essential for life on earth. They provide water for drinking and agriculture, help protect us from drought and flooding, clean our waste, store carbon and provide food. By protecting and restoring the wetlands which the Bewick’s call home, we’re working toward a more sustainable future for both people and wildlife.
- The best way to ensure the long term protection of this species is to spread awareness of their fascinating and mysterious lives, and the ways in which we can protect them. That’s why when someone adopts a swan, we send out a Bewick’s information pack, regular updates from the field, as well as much more. Adoption is a great way for yourself or a loved one to get involved with this epic story.
If you would like to support our work with Bewick’s, but aren’t interested in receiving an adoption pack, you can make a donation.
However you’d like to show your support for swans, we’d be very grateful.