From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Swans aren’t the only birds to throw their weight around

A WWT study suggests we should change our opinion of ‘aggressive’ swans. 

Published: May 10, 2017 at 9:30 am
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After undertaking the world’s largest study of aggression among birds, WWT found that swans are not unique in their behaviour and should not be considered any more or less aggressive than other bird species.


The research team at WWT decided to embark upon the study as swan aggression seemed to be something that piqued the public’s interest in nature.

Visitors to WWT’s wetland centres frequently reported witnessing swans fighting, and the team noticed that if bird aggression in the media was reported, the perpetrator would most often be a swan. “We thought we'd find out the truth behind it,” said Dr Kevin Won, principle research officer at WWT, who led the study.

The researchers looked at 555 groups of birds from 65 different species and found that the common factor of aggression in birds wasn’t down to species, but gender and age: adult males were far more likely to exhibit more aggressive behaviour than other groups of birds.

This finding didn’t come as a surprise to researchers, as adult males need to win and defend food and breeding sites.

“Swans are no more or less aggro than any other birds we studied,” said Dr Won. “If you wander around WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge, you’ll notice that’s probably true. You’ll see coots knocking ten bells out of each other, and greylag geese hissing at anything that comes near them.

“These are natural behaviours, and they certainly get people to notice wildlife and think about it,” he continues. “For the birds it’s a way of trying to ensure that they and their family do well in life. But trying to win enough food and a place to live is risky. Pick on the wrong opponent and a bird could be seriously injured or worse. At WWT we do have to step in sometimes when the fights get too rough and feathers start to fly.”


Read the full study in Animal Behaviour.


Sam is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for wildlife and the outdoors.


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