Five facts you need to know about whooper swans

One sure sign that the season is turning other than temperatures getting colder and days getting shorter is the arrival of the many species of migrant birds that come to Scotland every year to spend the winter.

One of these is the very beautiful whooper swan - some of you may have been lucky enough to see them (or hear them!) already as the main time they arrive in large numbers is mid to late October. To celebrate the arrival of these much loved birds here are five facts you need to know about them.

How to tell whooper swans from mute swans

How do you know for sure you’ve seen a whooper swan, especially when Scotland is home to mute swans all year round? There are several ways to tell the difference between these swans.

Whooper swans are smaller than mute swans which are one of the biggest birds found in Scotland. When whooper swans are up-ended eating away at food in the water they have square-ended tails while mute swans have a point to their tails. One of the most obvious differences is their bills: whooper swans have a long bill which is mostly yellow with a black tip and mute swans have orange bills with a black base to them, including a very distinctive round lump.  

It’s also possible to hear the difference between these swans when they are flying - the wing beats of whooper swans make a slight hissing sound, unlike the very loud singing sound that comes from mute swans in flight.

Summers spent in Iceland, winters spent in Scotland

Whooper swans spend the summer breeding in Iceland, Scandinavia, northern Russia and northern Asia. The ones we get in Scotland each winter come from Iceland and there’s over 4,000 of them that make their home here in the colder months. In fact almost all of the whooper swans from Iceland migrate to the UK and Ireland. Some of the areas where they feed in Iceland are rich in iron compounds which stain the head and neck feathers of the swans a rust colour - these are lost during their winter moults.

Very few whooper swans remain in Scotland over the summer but one place that has had a regular summer resident over recent years is our Lochwinnoch reserve. Whoopie, as he has been nicknamed, injured his wing some years ago and so cannot join the yearly migration.

Families stick together

Whooper swan families make the big migration journey to Scotland together. Both parents take care of their cygnets when they hatch in the Icelandic summer and come the autumn they all depart together to fly south. The cygnets stay with their parents over winter and start the return migration joyurney with them in the spring. Whooper swans are very faithful to the sites where they spend winter and often return to the same place over subsequent years.

Noisy swans with a distinctive call

Unlike mute swans (which were named because of their lack of noise) whooper swans are very vocal! They have a very loud trumpeting call which sounds a bit like an old fashioned car horn.

Whooper swans can be seen across Scotland over winter, including at several of our reserves such as Lochwinnoch, Loch Leven, Baron's Haugh and Loch of Strathbeg. They’ll be here until around mid-April so you have plenty of time to look and listen out for them while on walks this autumn and winter.