The lovely mute swan is Denmark’s national bird symbol. These large creatures have decorated the country’s lakes, ponds and waterways for thousands of years. But unlike the bald eagle – named U.S. national bird in 1782 – the mute swan received its lofty status only in 1984, after a TV show discussed which bird should represent Denmark. In an informal referendum, more than 120,000 viewers picked the swan over the dull, brown skylark, chosen by the Ministry of Education in 1960.
So, did Danes trade in a very chirpy, energetic songbird for a silent type, given the word “mute” in the swan’s name? In fact, these swans utter plenty of sounds, even if somewhat less loudly than other breeds. Their noises include whooping, snorting, hissing, grunting and – in the case of mothers calling to their cygnets – yaps like small dogs. They also make slapping sounds with their wings that can carry as far as a mile. (Sample sounds referenced below.)
This is now the time of year in Denmark – July and August – when mute swans molt their old feathers and grow in a new batch. While this is going on, they cannot fly and thus become more vulnerable to predators, such as foxes, minks and dogs. Amazingly, swan parents – who mate for life – manage to molt at different times, to raise the odds that one bird will be around to protect the cygnets. If a parent dies, the other – male or female – will assume full care of their growing offspring. Not a bad bird to represent a country that’s among the world leaders in equal parenting rights!
The understated skylark, Denmark’s previous national bird
– Photo of mute swan
– Photo of skylark by T. Voekler
– Gyldendal Den Store Dansk: Nationalfugl (in Danish)
– fyens.dk: He made the swan the national bird (in Danish)
– Mute swan calls: Taping by Dolly Minis, courtesy of Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
– Skylark song from the British Library
– State Symbols USA – Bald eagle
– The Swan Sanctuary Charity, Shepperton, UK
– BBC- Earth: The truth about swans