Bewick’s swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)

GenusCygnus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 115 - 127 cm (2)
Wingspan: 180 - 211 cm (3)
Weight3.4 - 7.8 kg (3)

Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern) (3). Receives general protection in Great Britain under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and listed under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive. Classified as a Species of European Conservation Concern (4).

Bewick’s swan is the smallest swan to visit Britain (3). It is named after the illustrator Thomas Bewick who died in 1828 and produced many fine drawings of this species during his lifetime (5). These graceful white birds are generally very similar in appearance to the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) but their bills feature a small, typically rounded patch of yellow, whereas in whooper swans the wedge-shaped patch of yellow extends below the nostril (2). Males and females are very similar in appearance, but juveniles are generally greyish in colour and the bill is pink and off-white (2). This swan often produces a musical honking, especially when they are in flocks (6).

Bewick’s swan is a subspecies of Cygnus columbianus. Another subspecies of this swan is the Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus columbianus), which occurs in North America (4). Bewick’s swan breeds in the Arctic tundra across northern Russia. Birds from the western part of this breeding range migrate to spend the winter further south in lowland areas of northern Europe from Denmark to France and the British Isles (4). The eastern population spends the winter in China, Korea and Japan (7). In Britain the largest wintering populations are found in eastern England (4). Very large flocks occur at the Ouse Washes and in Gloucestershire at Slimbridge (6).

In its Russian breeding range, this swan is found on wet swampy grasslands (3). In Britain it overwinters in wet pastures, lakes, reservoirs, saltmarshes and flooded grasslands (3).

Whilst overwintering, Bewick’s swans form very large flocks and mix with other swans (7). They tend to feed on roots and foliage, often in farmland during the day, and roost on the water at night (3) (7). Individuals can be identified by the unique patterns of the bill. Studies have shown that pairs stay together for many years and should one individual die it can take up to three years for the other to find a new mate (6). It has also been shown that family groups remain together and make the migration as a group (6).

During the breeding season, pairs produce between 3 and 5 eggs which are incubated for up to 30 days. The young swans, known as cygnets, will have fully fledged after a further 40-45 days (3). They stay with their parents during the first winter and often during their second too, even if the parents have produced a new brood (7).

Significant numbers of Bewick’s swans occur in Britain, and the species is increasingly threatened by habitat loss and human activities (3).

99% of the British overwintering population and 5% of the Irish population occurs within Special Protection Areas (SPAs). However, many of these swans feed on intensively managed farmland outside of these protected areas during the day, and so measures must be taken to protect the birds in these areas (4). Some of the sites supporting this species are owned by the RSPB or the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, so the species also receives protection in these areas (3).

For more information on British birds see the RSPB website:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

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  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (January, 2004)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. and Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. RSPB A-Z of Birds: Bewick’s swan (February, 2004)
  4. JNCC Special Protection Areas for Bewick’s swan (February, 2004)
  5. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air. Book Club Associates, London.
  6. Holden, P. and Sharrock, J.T.R. (2002) The RSPB Guide to British Birds. Pan Macmillan, London.
  7. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of wintering birds in Britain and Ireland. T & A D Poyser Ltd, London.