The Black Swan of the Family.

Photograph by Christopher McCormack. 

Photograph by Christopher McCormack. 

If you’ve ever been for a stroll around Albert Park Lake, been down to Swan Bay outside of Queenscliff, or visited another of our region’s wetlands, then you might have found yourself staring at one of our country’s oddest waterbirds.

The Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) has turned heads even prior to Australia’s discovery by the British. The Dutch were the first people from the Old World to see the birds when they came ashore in Western Australia, and these birds have since come to adorn the state’s emblem and the logo of the famous Swan Brewery. 

Before Europeans first encountered them, the concept of the Black Swan had always been considered a mythical anomaly. Indeed, philosophers who argued that some truths are obvious and do not need to be proven would often support their contention with the notion that all swans are white. The discovery of a whole new species of black swans threw a spanner in the works, and would come to support those who argued that all truths require evidence.

But while Europeans were astonished, the Black Swan had long been a familiar sight to Australia’s Aborigines – they of course made for good eating.

I don’t know how swans taste, but I do know that they are far from “sitting ducks” and, if unable to fly away on their large wings, will defend themselves with an unexpected ferocity. Their long serpentine necks are incredibly manoeuvrable and allow them to reach vegetation underwater, but also to strike out and rear up at potential threats. They hiss in a highly reptilian manner, and while their bills are relatively soft, some of the bones in their powerful wings are rock-hard and capable of inflicting considerable damage – word is that they can break bone!

Of course, while capable of defending themselves, Black Swans are usually placid birds. If you take a walk around Albert Park Lake (keep your dog on its leash!), you may find the occasional demanding individual who desires bread. However, you needn't fear them - although you should respect them.

Around this time of year the swans are breeding. They can have up to six eggs and are often very devoted parents. Pairs reaffirm their bonds and celebrate territorial victories by calling to one another, bowing their heads, and lifting their bills to the sky in a display known as a triumph. Males are typically larger than females, although overall the species shows little difference between the sexes.

 

Photograph by Christopher McCormack.

Photograph by Christopher McCormack.

Here are some fun facts about these strange birds:

 

- The Black Swan is one of the smallest swan species in the world, although it has the longest neck proportional to its body size.

- About 1 in 6 Black Swan cygnets are fathered by a swan not paired with its mother.

- The white band across a Black Swan’s bill is used in social signalling, such as a marker for dominance.