The Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) are a large waterbird native to Australia. They are widespread throughout Australia, from the east to west coast, although they are more common in southern Australia and Tasmania.
They occur in wetlands, river estuaries, bays and great lakes. Where wetlands areas are permanent, the Black Swans are thought to be sedentary (inhabiting the same locality throughout their life), however if the wetlands dry out, they migrate. New research have revealed that they may be more nomadic then first thought, being opportunistic in their response to rainfall and drought. They have been sighted in semi-arid region including Central Australia, where there are semi-permanent and permanent waterholes. Black Swans have been sighted at 2 Mile in the West MacDonnell Ranges and Alice Springs Sewage Ponds (see our image of a Black Swan and flock of Australian Pelicans).
The Black Swan is herbivorous, with their diet consisting of wetland/marshland plants and aquatic plants such as algae and weeds. They can often be seen dipping their head and neck under the water and in deeper water up-ending their body to reach the bottom. They are also known to feed on pasture plants near the shoreline.
Black swans have been introduced in a number of other countries including New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
The swans appear to be jet black, but their plumage can have grey hues and browns under certain lighting condition. They have white primary wing feathers that are visible when the birds are in flight. Their bill is red with a pale bar and tip, with legs and feet being a greyish-black in colour. The adult male and female are similar in colour with the adult male being larger then the female.
The male swan is called a “cob” and the female is called a “pen”. The term “cob” comes from the old German term Knopf meaning knob, relating to the knob on the top of the male beak (being more obvious in the white swans in the northern hemisphere. The term “pen” is because of the way the female holds her wings back in a penned manner from the English term Penne.
Breeding and sexuality
Like most swan species, the black swan are considered monogamous, with both adults raising a single brood per season. They create an untidy nest that is between 1 to 1.5 metres in diameter in shallow water or floated in shallow water. The nest is made of reeds and grasses. When the chicks hatched, they are covered in grey down and are able to swim and feed themselves.
A baby swan is called a cygnet, which is derived from the Latin Cygnus, the word for swan. As the juvenile swan grows, it loses it grey-cream colour, and the immature black swan feathers become mottled grey.
Whilst the Black Swans are known to form monogamous pairs, recent studies have shown that around a third of all broods exhibit extra-pair paternity. This is where the animal, in this case the black swan, form a relationship to mate and raise their offsprings, whilst still engaging in sexual activities with other partners. In studies, genetic tests have shown that some offspring raised by a monogamous pair come from the female having mated with another male partner. This is called extra-pair copulation. There is some interesting research by biologists that discuss the varieties of monogamy.1,2,3
In addition to this, there are estimated one-quarter of all pairings are homosexual, mostly between male swans. Studies show they may steal nests or form temporary threesomes with a female swan to obtain eggs.
See our Footnote & References for further information.
Gods and constellation
In Greek mythology, Cycnus or Cygnus, was the son of Apollo.
Cygnus is a northern constellation, one of the most recognizable constellations of the northern summer and autumn, and it features a prominent asterism (a known pattern or group of stars that can be seen in the night sky) known as the Northern Cross (being part of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.
Images © Dorothy L
There are a number of stories about the Black Swan including Wurrunna, as told to South Australian born writer Catherine Eliza Somerville Stow (1 May 1856 – 27 March 1940), who wrote as K. Langloh Parker.
The Dreamtime story of the black swans tells how two brothers were turned into white swans so they could help an attack party during a raid for weapons. It is said that Wurrunna used a large gubbera, or crystal stone to transform the men. After the raid, eaglehawks attacked the white swans and tore feathers from the birds. Crows who were enemies of the eaglehawks came to the aid of the brothers and gave the black swans their own black feathers. The black swan red beak is said to be the blood of the attacked brothers, which stayed there forever.Australian Legendary Tales, by K Langloh Parker
Another tale, The Story of the Black Swan – Guunyu is told by the artist Cheryl Davison, which inspired her to create her design for the 2018 Sydney Swans Indigenous Guernsey.
In the dreamtime lived a beautiful white swan. It was graceful and elegant and had beautiful white feathers, amongst all the birds the swan was the most beautiful. We call him Guunyu. He lived in the waterways of lakes and billabongs…Home of the Sydney Swans, see footnote link to read The Story of the Black Swan – Guunyu
As well as the spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, the black swan has a presence in the white Australian culture. It is the official state emblem of Western Australia, is depicted on the flag of Western Australia and on the Western Australian coat-of-arms. It has been used as an emblem on coins, logos, mascots, as well as commercial branding on products and services.
- Scientific classification
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Anseriformes
- Family: Anatidae
- Genus: Cygnus
- Species: C. atratus
- Binomial name: Cygnus atratus
- Anas atrata
- Chenopis atratus
Footnote & References
- Black swan, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Black_swan&oldid=1026504320 (last visited June 20, 2021).
- Kraaijeveld, Ken; Gregurke, John; Hall, Carol; Komdeur, Jan & Mulder, Raoul A. (May 2004). “Mutual ornamentation, sexual selection, and social dominance in the black swan”. Behavioral Ecology. 15 (3): 380–389. doi:10.1093/beheco/arh023.
- Extra-pair paternity does not result in differential sexual selection in the mutually ornamented black swan (Cygnus atratus), K. Kraaijeveld, P. J. Carew, T. Billing, Greg J. Adcock, Raoul A. Mulder, published 15 April 2004, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2004.02172.x
- Homosexual Animals Out of the Closet November 16, 2006 LiveScience, https://www.livescience.com/1125-homosexual-animals-closet.html
- Black Swan, BirdLife Australia, https://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/black-swan
- The Australian Black Swans, Swan Lovers, https://swanlovers.net/category/black-australian-swans/
- K. Langloh Parker, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=K._Langloh_Parker&oldid=1009286978 (last visited June 20, 2021).
- The Story of the Black Swan – Guunyu, by artist Cheryl Davison, Sydney Swans, https://www.sydneyswans.com.au/news/127929/the-story-of-the-black-swan-guunyu