Research Shows Swans Would Rather Fight Than Sleep: Why Are They so Aggressive?

Eva Hagan - Author

Jan. 15 2024, Published 10:20 a.m. ET

A group of swans in a pond where one in the middle has their wings spread out.
Source: iStock

You may have heard of the myth that a swan could break your bones when provoked. Although this is extreme and very unlikely, swans are aggressive animals and have been known to terrorize.

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Swans are aggressive for several reasons, ranging from protecting their young and fighting for food, but sometimes it seems like they are aggressive for absolutely no reason. There are cases of swans tormenting entire communities, a behavior not very common in other species of bird. So why are swans so mean?

Two swans on a body of water with their wings spread out.
Source: iStock
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Why are swans so mean?

It’s no secret that swans are among the more aggressive waterfowl. Despite their regal appearance, long S-curved necks, and white feathers, many swan species commonly exhibit hostile behavior and rapacious appetite that can threaten native species.

The mute swan, a species native to Europe and imported to North America in the 19th century, has scattered populations in much of the United States. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, mute swans harbor large appetites and are known to eat up to eight pounds of vegetation a day.

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A swan stands on a sidewalk in front of a boat harbor and a seagull lands behind them.
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Their voracious eating habits can deplete native plant species, thus limiting food for the native wildlife. In addition to this, mute swans can be so aggressive, especially while nesting, that they can drive native wildlife out of their habitat, per Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.

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Although it is normal in the animal kingdom to become aggressive when their babies or resources feel threatened, swans take this to a new level. According to Cosmos Magazine, after observing the mute and whooper swan species through a webcam, they found that the birds regularly forfeited rest time to engage in aggressive behavior. Most often, swans are aggressive when foraging for food and would elect to engage in competition over food instead of spending time resting.

Are swans aggressive to humans?

Swans are also known to strike at humans from time to time. According to Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, swans can be aggressive towards boaters, fishermen, and anyone they feel threatens them. In one case, a swan did knock a man off of his kayak, where he eventually drowned, per BBC. Although this case is extreme, other stories of swans are causing trouble.

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Two swans and a duck swim in a body of water.
Source: iStock

In 2016, there were reports of swans terrorizing residents of a small British Village by wrecking property, blocking vehicles, and assaulting children. However, despite the real danger, residents couldn’t do much to fight back.

According to a 12th-century law, killing a swan is treason against the British Monarchy because centuries ago, swans were seen as an exclusive gourmet delicacy for the crown. This meant water guns were the best defense tactic for those under swan siege, per Vox.

According to The Swan Sanctuary, swans are most aggressive when protecting their nests and young. They will often chase off intruders and can hiss and peck.

Although human death by swan is unlikely, it isn’t impossible, so it’s best not to mess with the swans.

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