The black swan is a large waterbird, a species of swan, which breeds mainly in the southeast and southwest
regions of Australia. The species was introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s. Within Australia they are
nomadic, with erratic migration patterns dependent upon climatic conditions. Black swans are large birds with
mostly black plumage and red bills. They are monogamous breeders that share incubation duties and cygnet
rearing between the sexes.
Black swans have been introduced to various countries as an ornamental bird in the 1800s, but have escaped
and formed stable populations. A small population of Black swans exists on the River Thames at Marlow, and
near the River Itchen, Hampshire. Described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790, the
black swan was formerly placed into a monotypic genus, Chenopis. Black swans can be found singly, or in
loose companies numbering into the hundreds or even thousands. Black swans are popular birds in zoological
gardens and bird collections, and escapees are sometimes seen outside their natural range.
Black swans are mostly black-feathered birds, with white flight feathers. The bill is bright red, with a pale
bar and tip; and legs and feet are greyish-black. Cobs (males) are slightly larger than pens (females),
with a longer and straighter bill. Cygnets (immature birds) are a greyish-brown with pale-edged feathers.
A mature black swan measures between 110 and 142 centimetres (43 and 56 in) in length and weighs 3.7-9
kilograms (8.2-19.8 lb). Its wing span is between 1.6 and 2 metres (5.2 and 6.6 ft). The neck is long (
relatively the longest neck among the swans) and curved in an "S"-shape.
The black swan utters a musical and far reaching bugle-like sound, called either on the water or in flight,
as well as a range of softer crooning notes. It can also whistle, especially when disturbed while breeding
When swimming, black swans hold their necks arched or erect and often carry their feathers or wings raised in
an aggressive display. In flight, a wedge of black swans will form as a line or a V, with the individual
birds flying strongly with undulating long necks, making whistling sounds with their wings and baying,
bugling or trumpeting calls.
The black swan is unlike any other Australian bird, although in poor light and at long range it may be
confused with a magpie goose in flight. However, the black swan can be distinguished by its much longer
neck and slower wing beat.
One captive population of black swans in Lakeland, Florida has produced a few individuals which are a light
mottled grey color instead of black.
The black swan is common in the wetlands of southwestern and eastern Australia and adjacent coastal islands.
In the south west the range encompasses an area between North West Cape, Cape Leeuwin and Eucla; while in the
east it covers are large region bounded by the Atherton Tableland, the Eyre Peninsula and Tasmania, with
the Murray Darling Basin supporting very large populations of black swans. It is uncommon in central and
The black swan's preferred habitat extends across fresh, brackish and salt water lakes, swamps and rivers
with underwater and emergent vegetation for food and nesting materials. Permanent wetlands are preferred,
including ornamental lakes, but black swans can also be found in flooded pastures and tidal mudflats, and
occasionally on the open sea near islands or the shore.
Black swans were once thought to be sedentary, but the species is now known to be highly nomadic. There is no
set migratory pattern, but rather opportunistic responses to either rainfall or drought. In high rainfall
years, emigration occurs from the south west and south east into the interior, with a reverse migration to
these heartlands in drier years. When rain does fall in the arid central regions, black swans will migrate
to these areas to nest and raise their young. However, should dry conditions return before the young have
been raised, the adult birds will abandon the nests and their eggs or cygnets and return to wetter areas.
Black swans, like many other water fowl, lose all their flight feathers at once when they moult after
breeding and they are unable to fly for about a month. During this time they will usually settle on large,
open waters for safety.
The species has a large range, with figures between one and ten million km2 given as the extent of
occurrence. The current global population is estimated to be up to 500,000 individuals. No threat of
extinction or significant decline in population has been identified with this numerous and widespread bird.
Black swans were first seen by Europeans in 1697, when Willem de Vlamingh's expedition explored the Swan
River, Western Australia.
Diet and feeding
The black swan is almost exclusively herbivorous, and while there is some regional and seasonal variation,
the diet is generally dominated by aquatic and marshland plants. In New South Wales the leaf of reedmace
(genus Typha) is the most important food of birds in wetlands, followed by submerged algae and aquatic
plants such as Vallisneria. In Queensland, aquatic plants such as Potamogeton, stoneworts, and algae are
the dominant foods. The exact composition varies with water level; in flood situations where normal foods
are out of reach black swans will feed on pasture plants on shore. The black swan feeds in a similar manner
to other swans. When feeding in shallow water it will dip its head and neck under the water and it is able
to keep its head flat against the bottom while keeping its body horizontal. In deeper water the bird up-ends
to reach lower. Black swans are also able to filter feed at the water's surface.
Nesting and reproduction
Like other swans, the black swan is largely monogamous, pairing for life (about 6% divorce rate). Recent
studies have shown that around a third of all broods exhibit extra-pair paternity. An estimated one-quarter
of all pairings are homosexual, mostly between males. They steal nests, or form temporary threesomes with
females to obtain eggs, driving away the female after she lays the eggs.
Generally, black swans in the Southern hemisphere nest in the wetter winter months (February to September),
occasionally in large colonies. A black swan nest is essentially a large heap or mound of reeds, grasses
and weeds between 1 and 1.5 metres (3-4½ feet) in diameter and up to 1 metre high, in shallow water or on
islands. A nest is reused every year, restored or rebuilt as needed. Both parents share the care of the
nest. A typical clutch contains 4 to 8 greenish-white eggs that are incubated for about 35-40 days.
Incubation begins after the laying of the last egg, to synchronise the hatching of the chicks. Prior to the
commencement of incubation the parent will sit over the eggs without actually warming them. Both sexes
incubate the eggs, with the female incubating at night. The change over between incubation periods is marked
by ritualised displays by both sexes. If eggs accidentally roll out of the nest both sexes will retrieve the
egg using the neck (in other swan species only the female performs this feat). Like all swans, black swans
will aggressively defend their nests with their wings and beaks. After hatching, the cygnets are tended by
the parents for about 9 months until fledging. Cygnets may ride on their parent's back for longer trips into
deeper water, but black swans undertake this behaviour less frequently than mute and black-necked swans.