what do Swans eat

Common Species of Swans and What They Eat: Ultimate Guide

Swans are among the birds with the most extensive human fanbase. You may find these beautiful large waterfowls at various national parks and ponds where onlookers and passersby take pleasure in feeding them chunks of bread and other snacks.

However, the nutritional requirements of swans exceed what these individuals may consider a hobby or an act of charity. Therefore, studying these majestic birds’ feeding habits and modes is vital to ensure they’re being fed properly.

This comprehensive guide answers the pending question “what do swans eat?” by evaluating and presenting swans’ diet and nutritional habits both in natural and captive settings. We hope that you’ll have a good understanding of the variation in the food preferences of swans by species and seasons at the end of this article.

Before resolving the main issue, let’s quickly reflect on the nature of swans.

A Brief Overview of Swans

Swans are the largest living waterfowls. These graceful birds belong to the avian family Anatidae, including ducks and geese. Meanwhile, most swans are members of the genus Cygnus.

Swans possess long necks, a heavy body, and huge feet. They’re capable of gliding when swimming and flying with slow-paced wingbeats. When flying, swans stretch out their necks.

Fun Fact — Do you know that swans migrate in a diagonal formation or V-pattern at incredible altitudes? They’re also the fastest waterfowls, both on-air and on-water.

Furthermore, these elegant birds only exist in three colors — white, black, and grayish brown. White is the most common swan color, while grayish brown is the rarest.

Many swan species are vocal, uttering various sounds from their windpipe, which may be coiled within the breastbone in some. Even the so-called mute swan, the least vocal species, is fond of hissing, making low snoring sounds, or grunting sharply.

Swans let out a triumph note after driving off an enemy, as seen in geese.

Male swans, known as cobs, and the females, called pens, resemble each other. They’re social creatures except in the breeding season.

During courtship, a cob and pen mutually dip their bills or position their heads together. Afterward, they mate, leading to the pen laying and incubating about six eggs.

Their eggs are pale, unmarked, and laid on a heap of plants. In some swan species, the cob takes turns brooding.

It’s important to note that swans are primarily monogamous, maintaining pair bonds that stand the test of time — some last a lifetime. However, divorce may occur in the case of a nesting failure or when a mate dies.

The young swans that emerge from the egg are called cygnets. Cygnets are initially short-necked and are cared for by their parents for some months. In the third or fourth year, they become fully mature.

Swans are thought to live for about 20 years in the wild, while captive swans could live up to 50 years or more.

Distribution and Extant Species of Swans

Swans are typically found in temperate world regions. They rarely occur in the tropics and are absent in tropical Asia, Africa, Central America, and northern South America.

Besides, there are about seven or eight species of swans, of which five are native to the Northern Hemisphere. These five species of swans are white with black legs. Another swan species, known as the black swan, is indigenous to Australia.

In this piece, we’ll focus on four types of swans, including:

  • Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator)
  • Mute swans (Cygnus olor)
  • Tundra or Whistling swans (Cygnus columbianus)
  • Black swans (Cygnus atratus)

General Nutrition of Swans

Swans are mainly herbivorous waterfowls. They feed on various aquatic plants, grasses, algae, and fruit. Other items that may constitute their diet include mollusks, other sea creatures, and insects.

Apart from seeking food from the aquatic environment, they also find grubs from the land.

Here’s a list of food sources swans are likely to have:

  • Common waterweed
  • Pondweed
  • Algae
  • Muskgrass
  • Snails
  • Freshwater shrimp
  • Coontail
  • Wild rice
  • Wild celery
  • Grain
  • Cracked corn
  • Mosquitoes
  • Water striders
  • Beetles
  • Wheat
  • Arrowhead
  • Dragonflies
  • Blueberries

Swans obtain most of their nutrients from foraging on aquatic vegetation, including plants near ponds and lakes.

Common Species of Swans and What They Eat

Several distinctions may exist in the diet of swans, depending on the species. In this light, we’ll treat the nutritional habits of familiar swan species specifically.

1. Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator)

Known as the largest native waterfowl in the United States, this swan species weigh more than 25 pounds and measure up to 6 feet in length.

As their name suggests, these snow-white-feathered birds have trumpet bugle calls. They inhabit wetlands in the northwestern United States, remote Alaska, and Canada, spending their winter on ice-free coastal and inland water bodies.

What Do Trumpeter Swans Eat?

Like other swans, trumpeter swans are predominantly plant-eaters. They feed on duck potato tubers and sago pondweed. Again, they may eat other aquatic plants’ leaves, stems, and seeds.

2. Mute Swans (Cygnus olor)

Mute swans are a beautiful white species indigenous to Europe. Still, they may be found in various parks, ponds, lakes, and wetlands in the United States as they were initially brought to the country to decorate city ponds and lakes.

They’re known to curve their long necks into an “S” when they swim. Although a symbol of love due to their tendency to keep lifelong mates, these waterfowl are known to exhibit aggressive behaviors, significantly when nesting or raising their young.

Mute swans have voracious appetites and have been found to eat up to 8 pounds of aquatic vegetation per day. Their feeding habits could be quite disturbing as they eliminate other species’ food and habitat, often sooner than the grasses can recover, in the process.

Aside from eating submerged vegetation, they may prey on some animals, such as tadpoles, insects, snails, and other mollusks, and frogs.

Also Read: 32+ Animals that Live in Lakes (Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, Insects, Mammals, Molluscs)

Do Swans Eat Fish?

Yes, mute swans eat fish, particularly the small ones.

3. Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus)

Tundra swans are giant waterfowl with purely white plumage. You may distinguish them from other swan species by their distinct black bills with a yellow spot at the base.

Notably, these black-legged swans stretch out their necks when flying and keep them straight when swimming.

Tundra swans reside in the remote arctic region of North America and migrate west to California or east to the Atlantic Flyway during the wintertime. They’re also known as whistling swans.

What Do Tundra Swans Eat?

Tundra swans have a predominantly plant-based diet, though they also feed on arthropods and mollusks. Typically, the plant portion of their diet comprises tubers, leaves, and stems of aquatic vegetation.

Do Swans Eat Grass?

Yes, Tundra swans eat grass, mainly grazing on upland or wet-meadow tundra in the arctic areas. Swans also forage on vast grassy fields and can even exist by grazing short-cropped grass fields.

In addition, whistling swans consume the following aquatic plants:

  • Carex sedges
  • Pondweed
  • Alkali grass
  • Saltmarsh starwort
  • Nostoc algae

During migration, they may feed on:

  • Corns
  • Leftover rice from the harvest
  • Soybean

Tundra swans are fond of tipping up, like dabbling ducks, when attempting to reach aquatic vegetation. In the Chesapeake Bay, they pull clams to the water surface with their bills and feet.

4. Black Swans (Cygnus atratus)

Black swans are exotic species native to Australia’s southwestern and southeastern parts.

At one point, only white swans were thought to exist. Now, these outstanding waterfowls have been introduced to Europe and North America. They’re known for their peculiar black plumage and red bill.

Among all swan species, they have the most extended necks relative to their body size and display nomadic behaviors when food is scarce. The males are larger than the female, and their cygnets are grayish-brown.

Notably, black swans are the least territorial species.

What Do Black Swans Eat?

Black swans are chiefly folivores; they primarily consume the leaves of plants. They feed on both aquatic and terrestrial vegetation.

That said, black swans may eat the following aquatic plants:

  • Algae
  • Reedmace leaf
  • Stoneworts

Sometimes, insects may also form part of their meals.

Seasonal Variations in the Nutrition of Swans

The nutritional habits of swans differ from season to season, as we’ll observe in a bit.

What Do Swans Eat In the Winter?

In the wintertime, swans have an exceptionally short food supply. Wild swans, especially trumpeter swans, survive this season by feeding on more ground plants and fruits.

Their diets in the winter mainly comprise:

  • Wheatgrass
  • Ryegrass
  • Lupine
  • Floor brush
  • Grain crops
  • Tubers
  • Blueberries
  • Cranberries

Some swan species, like tundra swans, migrate around this time to seek food in regions with milder climates. Captive swans may be given veggies as dietary supplements, including:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Celery
  • Shredded carrots

However, swans can’t chew or significantly tear their food because they lack teeth. Thus, it’s vital to cut the veggies into small nuggets.

What Do Swans Eat In the Summer and Spring?

In the summer and spring, swans return to eating aquatic vegetation in the summer and spring and grazing on grassy areas around lagoons and other freshwater bodies.

How Do Swans Find and Secure Potential Food?

Swans employ their sense of sight when searching for food. This trait surpasses their sense of smell.

Usually, they’ll explore the water surface or graze on land to find food. When they notice potential grub, primarily plants, they hold the food source firmly and sever it for consumption with their serrated bill. They also use this method when clasping insects that may form part of their diet.

Swans also seek food while gliding on water. When they observe a plant of interest deep in the water, they begin to perform a remarkable process known as up-ending.

Up-ending involves diving into the water, exposing their legs and rear parts, to reach downward for food with their long necks. Though this technique leaves them prone to sudden attacks, it’s an effective means of acquiring food, thanks to their incredibly long necks.

What Do Baby Swans Eat?

Swans build large nests to house their young ones (cygnets). Unlike other birds, who’re quite incapable when they’re young, cygnets only require a day or two to start accompanying their mothers to the water body for food.

Mother swans take their cygnets into shallow waters, using their feet as paddles to stir the water up. Eventually, this process brings sustaining food closer to the cygnets.

At this time, the diet of the cygnets consists of insects, freshwater shrimp, and tiny mollusks. After some weeks, the cygnets begin to include plant materials into their diet. They’ll commence their primarily plant-based meals after the first month.

Nutrition of Swans in Captivity

Swans are sometimes taken away from the wild by humans and put in houses, parks, and ponds. This inclination leads individuals to wonder how to feed them in captivity.

Just like in the wild, captive swans are principally herbivores. You may also feed them specified waterfowl feed.

What Do Ducks and Swans Eat?

There are several brands of defined feed for ducks and swans in the market. These dietary products were manufactured based on veterinarians’ and specialists’ proficiency. Yet, look for products containing no added sugar, flavor, or colors when buying swan and duck food.

In addition, you can offer captive swans these food sources:

  • Leafy greens: Such as lettuce, spinach, and some cabbage
  • Vegetable feelings: You can feed swans with the peelings from carrots and other veggies
  • Potatoes: Swans have been observed feeding on raw potatoes in the wild. You can take advantage of this habit when feeding a captive swan

Can Swans Eat Bread? — What About Ducks?

Bread is the food source people offer most to swans and ducks in ponds and national parks. Numerous people find the activity pleasurable and charitable. However, bread isn’t the best food to offer these waterfowls.

Some reports indicate that bread can have harmful effects on swans when given in large amounts as these birds can’t adequately digest the sugar and proteins in the dough.

If offered in small amounts as treats, swans can eat bread. Regardless, ensure the bread used to feed them doesn’t have molds as these fungi can be toxic to swans and other waterfowl.

Food Items Unsuitable for Swans

Not all items labeled as food are adequate for swans. Consuming some food items can elicit several health and digestive issues in swans.

In this light, abstain from giving swans these food items:

  • Sugary and starchy foods
  • Fatty foods
  • Junk foods
  • Fast foods
  • Milk and dairy products: Birds generally lack the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar, lactose. As a result, they can experience diarrhea and dehydration if they consume such substances. Worse still, severe dehydration could result in death.
  • Large amounts of bread
  • Cakes
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cooked and processed food

Predators of Swans

Various animals prey on cygnets, while other animals are fond of stealing swan eggs. Due to their large size, adult swans have very few natural predators.

Some common predators of swans include:

  • Foxes: Foxes are the main natural predators of swans. They prey on both adult swans and cygnets, and steal their eggs
  • Humans: Humans have substantially contributed to the reduction of the swan population. Historically, numerous individuals have hunted swans for their meat
  • Raccoons
  • Wolves


Swans are indeed beautiful waterfowl with interesting feeding habits. Their long necks and adaptive bills are part of the natural tools that facilitate their mode of nutrition.

More importantly, you now know better than to offer large quantities of bread bits and biscuits to swans when next you come across them in national parks and ponds. Instead, these elegant water birds require a greater portion of aquatic plants in their diet for survival.

If you’re considering getting a pet swan, you should be ready to provide vast space and water body for the bird. Also, swans need an area where they can fly freely. This effort will make your pet swan content and capable of building a nest for its young one.

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