Geese get a bad wrap for wanton violence, but have you ever spoken to the British about swans? “Break your arm, they will,” is often the response, and new research has found that they actually are deserving of their aggressive reputation.
Mute and whooper swans were the focus of research carried out by the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), which was published in the journal PLoS One. In the study, researchers looked to observe four key behaviors: aggression, foraging, self-care, and rest (why they left “kicking ass” and “taking names” off the list, we’re not quite sure).
Apples of the Queen of England’s eye, you might wonder what swans have to battle about in the UK, but it seems their majestic composure goes to bits when it comes to feeding areas. The researchers observed that there existed a “trade-off” between aggression and rest as the swans were too busy brawling for foraging areas to think about relaxing.
"These swans use aggression if there's competition over foraging areas," said Dr Paul Rose, from the University of Exeter and WWT in a statement. "Our findings show this requires a trade-off, and that both species reduce resting time to allow for this aggression.
"This was the strongest trade-off we found, but there was also a trade-off for both species between foraging and resting.”
The feuding waterfowl were observed from a safe distance as the researchers watched on via a live-streaming webcam at the WWT Caerlaverock nature reserve in Scotland. The reserve is home to mute swans year-round, but each year whooper swans join the party to fatten up before wintering in Caerlaverock.
The need to thicken like a good soup before the harsh Scottish winter means whoopers are at a slight disadvantage compared to the leisurely mute swans, and so they aren’t able to be as flexible in their behaviors when it comes to defending foraging spots. The researchers, therefore, suggest that a route to encouraging peace among the Anatidae is simply increasing the availability of food.
"By providing enough foraging spots for the birds, we can reduce the need for aggression around desirable feeding spots, giving them more time to rest," Dr Rose said.
"This can help to ensure that migratory species don’t 'push out' non-migratory species when they mix in the same wintering locations.”
The study also shines a light on why it is so many people seem intent on swans’ capacity to break human limbs despite the apparent lack of evidence (though if you find any, we’d love to hear from you).
"At WWT we get lots of questions from our visitors about the aggressiveness of swans,” said Dr Kevin Wood of WWT in a statement. "This new study helps us to understand how swans' behaviour changes when they engage in their disputes."
You may judge, but science has found that when it comes to hanger, we humans are no different.