Adding Swans to Your Homestead
If you have the space and a pond available, why not learn how to care for swans?
by Doug Ottinger
Often associated with legendary beauty and elegance, swans have been subjects of folk lore, written stories, dance and theatrical performances, throughout recorded history. Have you ever thought, “I would love to own a pair of those beautiful birds?” If you have a small farm with a pond, or space to build a pond, and live in a state that allows you to keep domestic, non-migratory swan species, keeping swans might just be a possibility.
Worldwide, there are seven main swan species. Scientists divide these into sub-groups, based on colors, behaviors, migration patterns, and other differences. Swans belong to the same family as surface-feeding ducks and geese. They are found in North America, Eurasia, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Trumpeter swans and Tundra swans (Whistler swans) are the two species native to North America. These are protected species and federal permits are required for ownership. The Common, or Mute swan (Cygnus olor) is native to Northern Europe and Eurasia. The Australian, or Black swan, (Cygnus atratus) is native to areas of Southeastern and Southwestern Australia. These are the two species commonly kept in captivity in the United States. It is these two species I will talk about in this article.
Both species were acquired by municipalities and wealthy citizens in the United States, from the mid-1800’s through the early 1900’s. Over time, numerous birds escaped from captivity, or were released into the wild and formed feral populations. Some of these populations, especially Mute swans, became problematic in many regions. Mutes are very aggressive, large birds that compete with native species for habitat. Consequently, many states were forced to put various restrictions, on ownership of Mute swans, in place.
According to Jamie Lord of Mallard Lane Farms, Black swans are native to warmer regions, however, and the feral populations did not take off in the colder areas of North America, as did Mute swans. Consequently, no states that he knows of currently prohibit ownership of Black swans. Mutes are known to destroy large amounts of subaquatic vegetation, the main dietary component of native species. While one Mute swan will eat about eight pounds of vegetation per day, it can destroy 20 to 40 pounds in the process, depleting food supplies for native waterfowl species as well as causing loss of oxygen in the water when the vegetation rots.
Being related to ducks and geese, there are a number of similarities in diet and habitat requirements. If you are already experienced at keeping geese, you will find that keeping swans is somewhat the same and should be an easy transition. Be aware, though, that there are a number of differences, including a tendency to be much more territorial during mating, nesting, and family-raising periods. Under normal circumstances, raising mixed species of poultry in the same living area is often practiced. Keeping ducks and chickens together can be a compatible mix. Ducks and geese are often kept together. Geese and ducks are content to live in large, social flocks. However, swans are different. They can be very territorial and aggressive, especially during breeding, nesting and family-rearing times. Keeping swans is a long-term commitment. Make sure you are willing to be tied to them for twenty years, or more, after the initial novelty of ownership wears off.
While very beautiful, both Mute and Black swans can be aggressive protectors of their nesting territory. They will fight their own species and attack other waterfowl. Swans will also challenge humans, if they perceive their nesting areas, or young, are threatened. A swan will run or fly at full force, attempting to strike with the hard, bony edge of its wing. A blow to a person’s face can easily result in a laceration requiring stitches. Males are generally the most aggressive defenders of the nest and family unit. It is best to raise swans in individual pairs, or in same-sex pairs if you do not want to breed them. Jamie Lord recommends keeping same-sex pairs if you are only keeping them for aesthetic reasons and offspring is not a priority. Most swans have very little tolerance for their own young, once grown. Therefore, if you have a breeding pair of these animals, you will need to find a way to catch and contain the yearlings. While many waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, live happily in generational colonies, most individual pairs of swans seek-out solitude for themselves, and their babies, during nesting and rearing times. Black swans are one exception and may nest near each other in a loose group. Wild swans will group together during migration and throughout winter. They will then split back into individual pairs as breeding and nesting time approaches.
Swans can reach lengths of five and one-half feet or more and have wingspans of six to eight feet. Males are known as cobs, females are called pens, and the young are referred to as cygnets.
Legal issues to be aware of when procuring or keeping domesticated swans:
Different states have varying regulation on swans being kept by private individuals. Know what your state laws are. Some states, such as California, have numerous and convoluted regulations. According to Jack Long, owner of Creekside Birds near Point Reyes Station, California, the laws are sometimes difficult for even the Fish and Game agents to know and interpret. Other states have laws that are very straight-forward and make swan ownership easier.
Rules and regulations can change quickly. The sampling of state regulations, précised here, is not legal advice. It is what the author was able to procure, at time of writing this article:
Kentucky: Mute swans may not be owned, purchased or sold. Neither may they be transported through the state. Black swans are grouped with domestic ducks and geese and are legal to own.
Minnesota: Mute swans may be owned in Minnesota, under a State Game Farm license. Currently the annual fee is $16.50. Black swans are considered domestic waterfowl in Minnesota.
California: Until recently Mute swans could be procured and kept, by state-issued permit. According to Jack Long of Creekside Birds, California Fish and Game is issuing very few permits at this time. Many U.S. Post Offices in California are not handling swans, due to the state regulations.
Pennsylvania: Mute swans in captivity are currently classified as Captive Domestic/Exotic Waterfowl and are considered pets. Outside of captivity, they are considered feral and may be shot. Black swans may be kept.
Indiana: Mute swans are currently protected. A permit is required to own one or kill one. Black swans are also allowed. Wing pinioning and a fence to contain swans is required by law.
North Carolina: Mute swans may be kept on property without any permit. However, all swans, including cygnets, must be pinioned.
Texas: Mute Swans and Black swans are both okay (no restrictions).
Maryland, Michigan and New York: No Mute swans allowed; Black swans are okay.
How to Care for Swans:
Diet: Adult swans, like geese, are primarily vegetarians. They feed on a variety of aquatic, as well as subaquatic plants. Roots, leaves, seeds, tubers, and stems are consumed. In the wild, swans generally have large enough areas, on which to forage, that they can get a large variety of plants to fill their nutritional needs. However, in captivity, an adequate variety of aquatic plants may be in short supply. Pelletized game bird or waterfowl feeds are often fed to domestically-kept swans. Pelleted feed for laying chickens may also be used. Protein levels should run 15 to 18 percent. Feed should be in pellet form, and not crumbles, as swans can choke on the small, dry particles. In the wild, young cygnets begin eating mainly animal matter like small aquatic crustaceans and mollusks. As with most young fowl, cygnets need high protein levels. As they grow, they transition into eating increased amounts of plant matter, until they reach a mainly vegetarian diet in adulthood.
Habitat and Housing: In most settings, swans are kept outdoors, year-round. Standard shelters used by ducks or geese, or normal chicken coop designs, are rarely used by swans. Even in captivity, swans remain semi-wild and prefer living outdoors. They will need shade from the sun in hot climates. In very cold climates, Black swans may need indoor shelter during the winter. According to Virginia Margerum of Small Valley Swans in Lexington, Pennsylvania, swans need an open, flowing, cold water source at all times. Swans kept in water sources that are tepid, or too warm, can get sick. On an outdoor pond, one-quarter acre of pond surface is the bare-minimum, needed for each pair of breeders. However, an acre or two is often more realistic. To keep the birds from escaping, swan enclosures need a cover, or the birds will need to be pinioned (tip of one wing removed, when very young). Many state’s laws require one or the other.
Breeding, egg-laying, and incubation: Black swans reach sexual maturity at about two-and-one-half years of age; Mute swans at about three-and-one-half years. Pairs of swans usually form monogamous bonds, usually for life. Occasionally a cob may mate with two pens, but it is highly unusual. Pairs breed in the spring. Open water, at least 18 to 24 inches deep, is required for swan copulation. Females usually lay one annual clutch of four to 11 white, or greenish-white eggs. The nest is a large, thick mat, comprised of vegetation. Eggs are laid about 48 hours apart. Depending on swan species, incubation can take 36 to 42 days and is not started until the pen lays all of her eggs. In many commercial swan breeding farms, the eggs are hatched in incubators like other poultry eggs. I asked Jack Long, at Creekside Birds, how a breeder would be able to collect the eggs, since swans are so protective of their nests. He chuckled and said, “It’s a lot like bull fighting. You have to be quick and know what you are doing.” Fertility of swan eggs is very dependent on the parents having proper nutrition during breeding and the egg-formation period.
Buying and procuring swans: A number of chick hatcheries offer young pairs of swans, or individual birds. Swans are generally sold when they are yearlings or just as they are reaching breeding age. Some breeders also offer young cygnets for sale. There are a number of very reputable breeders in the United States, most of which can be found via a web search. Some breeders and sanctuaries also offer older swans for rehoming. Before purchasing, know what the regulations are in your state.
Even with some of the drawbacks, swans can be beautiful additions to a farm pond. They can easily add beauty to any rural setting. Does keeping these beautiful and regal birds appeal to you? Do you have the space that swans need? Do you have an area for a pond, to keep them year-round? Can you legally keep swans where you live? If all of the answers are yes, swan ownership may be right for you.
Where Can I Buy swans?
Interested in procuring a pair of swans for your farm or homestead? Here are a few sources to help you start your search:
Meyer Hatchery / meyerhatchery.com
Mallard Lane Farms / mallardlanefarms.com
Use website for contact
Small Valley Swans / svswans.com
(717) 362- 3182
Creekside Birds / creeksidebirds.com
Point Reyes Station, California
Murray McMurray Hatchery / mcmurrayhatchery.com
Webster City, Iowa
Special thanks to Virginia Margerum, at Small Valley Swans (svswans.com); Jack Long, at Creekside Birds (creeksidebirds.com,); and Jamie Lord at Mallard Lane Farms (mallardlanefarms.com). All shared many years of experience, and valuable information about swans, with the author.