Featured Creature: Whooper Swan

"Cygnus cygnus" by Juratone

What creature can live for over two decades, was revered by Baltic-Finnish pagan tribes, and is Finland’s national bird? 

The Whooper Swan! 

“Cygnus cygnus” by Juratone

There are many creatures on Earth that are very much entwined with human culture, and this week’s Featured Creature is an excellent representation of this. The Whooper Swan has been a part of Finnish culture for hundreds of years, and it has also made an impact in my life recently, helping me to learn more about my heritage. 

My ancestors came to America from Finland a few generations back, and I frequently write to my relatives still living there. This past Christmas, a dear friend and relative from Finland gifted me a necklace of a Whooper Swan. Delighted and intrigued by this creature, I set off on a journey throughout the internet to learn more about it. I’m excited to share what I learned with you today!

Whooper Swan Necklace

The Mute Swan’s Vocal Cousin

Unlike the mute swan, which is known for being rather calm and quiet, the Whooper Swan lives up to its name by creating beautiful trumpet calls. Another distinction between the two cousins is that the wing beat of the Whooper Swan is almost inaudible, while the Mute Swan’s is much louder. 

While the Whooper Swan is of particular cultural significance to Finland, it resides all over Europe, including Iceland, and some parts of Siberia, particularly during breeding season. In the winter, the Whooper Swan has been known to migrate as close as other regions in Scandinavia, such as Lapland, and as far as Japan and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It inhabits bodies of freshwater, wetlands, grasslands, and farmlands.

“(Anseriformes: Anatidae) Cygnus cygnus, Sångsvan / Whooper swan” by holgeric77

Whooper Swans are rather large, with an 8-foot wingspan. (Imagine having wings longer than the average human height!) When a Whooper Swan returns to the water from a flight, it uses the heels of its black webbed feet as a set of brakes, stopping its momentum and landing safely. Its lovely white feathers are waterproofed by oil produced by a gland at the end of its tail. The Whooper Swan uses its bright yellow beak to spread the oil, resulting in feathers that don’t get wet! When they consume a greater amount of iron through their diet, the feathers on the Whooper Swan’s neck may turn a shade of gray. 

Swan Lake (Or, Dancing Swans on a Lake)

A monogamous creature, the Whooper Swan mates for life with its partner after securing the deal with an elaborate performance that includes both song and dance. Watch the remarkable ritual here:  

In terms of diet, Whooper Swans enjoy munching on a good balance of aquatic plants (including plant roots) and grains found in farm fields. Its favorite aquatic plant is the fennel pondweed, and its least favorite is the clasping leaf pondweed. These two plants adopt different growth patterns and behaviors as a result of the Whooper Swan’s grazing habits. This indicates that the Whooper Swan has an ecological role in regulating plant growth, at least among the pondweeds. Young Whooper Swans, called cygnets, need a higher amount of protein for their growth and development than adult Whooper Swans, so their diet also includes insects. 

Life in a world increasingly designed for humans can be rough. The Whooper Swan sometimes gets caught up in structures like power lines when flying – an accident that can be fatal. Other factors that impact mortality include having to rely too heavily on grains from agricultural fields for their nutrition and predation from other animals including foxes, bears, eagles, turtles, owls, coyotes, and more. Despite these hazards, many Whooper Swans have a significant lifespan, with the oldest recorded Whooper Swan in Finland living to be 24 years old. 

A Finnish Cultural Symbol

Before the spread of Christianity, Baltic-Finnish tribes are believed to have practiced Paganism. The swan was considered the holiest of all water birds, and was thought to bring death to others if killed. It was also believed that the swan’s long, straight neck allowed it to view the land of the dead, called Tuonela in Finnish mythology. Many petroglyphs depicting swans were carved into rock by the ancient Baltic-Finns. 

Admiration for the Whooper Swan in the Nordics has survived through the centuries. One of seven national nature symbols, the Whooper Swan was established as the national bird of Finland in 1982. Two Whooper Swans flying over a lake are also featured on the Finnish 1 Euro coin, and the species is included in the Finnish national folk epic called the Kalevala. 

However, its success as a species hasn’t always been easy. In the 20th Century, the Whooper Swan was on the brink of extinction in Finland due to overhunting and egg collecting by humans, leading to its designation as a protected species in 1934. In 1950, Finnish veterinarian and author Yrjö Kokko wrote a book called Laulujoutsen – Ultima Thulen lintu (Whooper Swan – Bird of Ultima Thule) that, among other writings by Yrjö Kokko, sparked heightened conservation efforts for the Whooper Swan in Finland. Today, thanks to conservation efforts like these, the Whooper Swan has rebounded as a species and is no longer listed as endangered! 

By Abby Abrahamson