Each year the Bewick’s swan undertakes one of nature’s greatest migrations, flying thousands of miles from its breeding grounds in the far north of Russia to Western Europe. But sadly not all make it and numbers have plummeted over the last 30 years which may be due in part to threats such as loss of its wetland habitats and shooting.

Bewick's swan
Bewick's swan

Scientific name

Cygnus columbianus bewickii

Appearance

Length: 115-127 cm from bill to tail, including the neck

Wingspan: 170-195 cm

Weight: Average of 6kg

The Bewick’s swan is the smallest swan to visit the UK and is not much bigger than a Canada goose. The adult bird has white feathers with yellow and black markings on its bill. The juvenile bird has grey and white feathers, and a pinkish bill.

Similar birds

The Bewick’s swan can be easily mistaken for a whooper swan. Both species migrate to the UK for winter. Bewick’s come from the Russian Arctic tundra and whoopers from Iceland. Both species have yellow and black bills, although the Bewick’s has proportionally more black and less yellow; the patterns are unique to each individual, much as fingerprints are to humans, and can be used to tell them apart.

Bewick’s swans have more oval, rounded yellow patches on either side of their bill, with a soft, bugling call.

Whooper swans are bigger than Bewick’s and have a honking voice that can sound like an old-fashioned car horn. The yellow on their bills forms a pointed “V” shape on either side.

Where do Bewick's swans Iive?

Farmland, coastal bays, and freshwater wetlands in winter and at staging sites; tundra habitat in arctic Russia during the summer

What do they eat?

When overwintering in the UK, Bewick’s swans feed on fields of improved grass, leftover potatoes, sugar beet, winter wheat and grain. On their breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic, they eat aquatic plants, grasses and sedges, and also berries found on the tundra during July-August.

Threats

The number of Northwest European Bewick’s swans has dropped by a third in recent years. There are now fewer than 21,000 left. They’re under threat from illegal hunting, lead poisoning, loss of wetland habitat, predation, and colliding with man-made structures (e.g. powerlines).

Conservation status

  • Population: Europe wintering: ~20,000, including <5,000 in UK (2015 census)
  • Global status (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species): Least Concern
  • African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA): A2 International Single Species Action Plan
  • European status (European Red List of Birds): Endangered (Europe and EU27)
  • The Birds Directive (European Commission): Annex I
  • UK status (Birds of Conservation Concern): Amber
  • UK quarry species (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981): not huntable

How is WWT helping Bewick’s swan?

WWT is working hard to uncover the causes of the Bewick’s swan's dramatic decline. Starting with Sir Peter Scott’s individual drawings of the Bewick’s bills, we have been monitoring the swans for over 60 years. Since we started ringing the swans in the 1960s there have been over a million sightings. We now use GPS trackers to give us even better information about their epic migration and the challenges they face. We also work with partners across the swans’ flyway and have set up a “Swan Champions” network as a community based approach to reduce illegal hunting.

See swans in the UK

Bewick’s swans start arriving in the UK from mid October onwards. They spend the winter in our comparatively warm climate, before departing for their breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic in the spring. During the winter, you can see Bewick’s up close at WWT Slimbridge, and WWT Welney where they attend daily floodlit feeds.

More on seeing swans

Other wetland wildlife species

Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus)

Larger than Bewick's, the whooper swan is generally larger and has a more triangular, wedge shaped beak.

Find out more