⬆︎ Slide Show: Click any image to open slide show. Click on the “X” at the top left, or hit the “ESC” key to return.
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Every now and then, we witness a territorial fight between male swans, with the resident male, or “cob,” defending his turf, or nesting area, against an interloper. Sometimes they fight to a standoff, work out an uneasy truce, and co-exist on the pond. Other times — and this is clearly one of them — the vanquished cob and his mate, the “pen,” decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and move on.

A pair of young Mute Swans took up residence on the pond early this winter, no doubt because it met two prerequisites: a lack of ice, and the absence of other swans. Their small size and slender necks (top photo, below) suggest this pen and cob were no more than two and three years old, respectively, and newly mated.

Sometime in mid February, however, the day of reckoning came. The real residents returned after several months’ absence – their usual winter excursion to some unfrozen body of water nearby, possibly a river or an estuary. Older, bigger and more experienced, they evicted the young’uns after a fierce fight.

It’s always hard to be sure of anything about swans, but sometimes a small insight can finally shed light on a big mystery. Hours after the fight, the older swans came by in what I took to be their victory lap (bottom photo).
Older Swans Later in the Day
February 18, 2012


They were completely at ease — serene, is a better word — showing none of the curiosity and excitability I associate with swans new to the pond. Suddenly all became clear: they had been here before; this was home, and they were the defenders.

Sure enough, looking at the fight sequence again, I realized it was the bigger, older swans on the attack, defending their nesting area. Initially, I had trouble telling which was the defending cob, and which the interloper, because both had their neck feathers up — a sign of aggression. The younger pen gave me the clue: her slender neck was plain to see, and she was being chased by the older pen, sporting a thicker neck.

I find swan fights horrific. I watched this one for about six minutes, before the action moved out of sight behind a neighbor’s hedge. Those six minutes seemed like an hour. I was so agitated by the violence in front of me, that I forgot to check my camera settings. As a result, all the shots came out too dark. Fortunately, I was able to lighten them digitally, in the photo editor, but they came out grainy, reminding me of old black-and-white photos that I “pushed” too hard in the darkroom. Perhaps this graininess serves a purpose, albeit unintended, that of heightening the sense of foreboding conveyed by the photos.

The slide show contains twenty-three shots. Some readers may find it overly long and repetitive, but I feel its very length conveys the intensity of the fight, as well as the determination and endurance of the combatants. I shot the sequence from my window in the early morning of February 18, 2012.

At the end, the victor forced his opponent into submission by holding him under water. Rarely do injuries or fatalities result from these fights, as fierce as they may be (although there was a reported killing here of one cob by another in 2006, the killer being known as unusually vicious).
Younger Swans, Days Earlier
February 2012


Less than an hour after the fight, far across the pond, to my great relief, I saw both combatants preening themselves, a sign that all was well.

A few minutes later, using binoculars, I watched a remarkable scene unfold on the opposite shore. The younger cob had climbed up to join the two older ones on land for a symbolic “surrender.” With neck sleeked, wings flat on his back, and bill pointing down, he was offering the classic signs of swan submission. The photo — the last one in the sequence — is fuzzy because of the great distance, almost a quarter mile, but it is dramatic nonetheless.

Occasionally, more than one “interloper” pair has appeared on the pond at the same time. In such cases, there are usually no fights, just frantic chases on the water and in the air, before the resident pair finally reassert control.

Every few years, during migration season, a vast gathering of unmated swans will take place on the pond. I’ve seen as many as fifty on the pond at once. Some writers refer to these as “winter flocks,” but the swans come and leave a few at a time, so they are flocks unlike any we are used to. I believe their purpose is to give young swans a chance to find mates. During these multi-day events, there are no fights, because there are no territories, and there are no territories because there are no nesting pairs — yet.

Click either of the separate photos to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Or click any thumbnail to open the slide show. Enjoy! (If that’s the right word.)
Related: Fighting Swans II*, Serene Swans*


4 Responses to Fighting Swans*

  1. Sulamit says:

    Hi, I’ve been searching all night for pictures of swans engaged in a fight, and I love yours so much. I was wondering if i could use a couple for my art. I’m a painter, and since I live inland with no water sources nearby its hard for me to take my own. Would this bother you?

  2. Terry Sullivan says:

    Ron, what a fabulous photo story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jim Fett says:

    Must have missed this bout, although I’ve seen others – nature in the raw. However, in mid-afternoon today I did see our eagle friend land in the pond-side willow – perhaps to watch the fisticuffs pictured here!

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