A mute swan attack on an unsuspecting human is not rare. It is wise to give them a wide berth where you can. Especially if they have young cygnets to defend.
However, on a walk around the Heronry Lake at Paxton Pits, Cambridgeshire, in July 2021 we discovered that they are prepared to also attack each other! In this instance there were two pairs on the lake. The male of one pair swam much too close to the other female and ended up paying the price for his mistake.
At first it seemed like the dominant male was sending a message to the interloper, with a lot of wing flapping and splashing. Being there with my camera I captured the action as it played out.
As a wildlife photographer I would never interfere with a bird's natural behaviour, and in fact getting any closer to these birds would have been dangerous. It was my job to watch and document the drama as it unfolded.
The dominant male's partner had three partly grown cygnets, and this was likely the reason for this mute swan attack. Swans are very protective and territorial.
In the photo below you can see the swan that was tending the cygnets putting herself between her babies and the fighting males.
At this point in the event, my husband and I weren't sure if the males had gotten tangled and were unable to separate. Their necks were entwined and they were flapping their wings frantically.
But as they started biting at their opponent's wings, and necks viciously it became obvious that this was a full blown fight! The pen kept guard to keep her cygnets out of the danger zone. Looking at my phone, I realised the swan's had been fighting for 20 minutes.
The flapping was slowing down, but they were still biting each other's necks.
Then one swan broke free and sped off across the lake. The winner chased him, and we thought it was all over, and the loser had been taught a lesson.
However, that wasn't the case. The stronger swan had let the other put some distance between them. He then launched another attack, rearing out of the water and landing on the back of his opponent, stopping him from escaping.
The weight of the swan on top, pushed the other one lower in the water, until only its head and neck were visible. It was obvious by now that this was serious and the intention of the uppermost swan was to drown his opponent!
I found the next photo very emotional to view on the back of the camera, as the females look so serene as they watch the vicious fight play out. The sinking swan looked in my direction and it was almost as if I could feel his terror.
As the mute swan attack progressed the birds gradually moved across the lake towards the Common Tern nesting rafts. This met with intense disapproval from the terns, who started to dive bomb the fighting swans.
The dominant swan was relentless in pinning his enemy under the water, and eventually let go of the neck of the sinking bird. The fight had now lasted for 30 minutes.
There was still fight left in the sinking swan, and he rallied several times. However, he seemed unable to get out from under the swan on top of him.
At this time we had to move on, hoping against hope that he would regain the upper hand (wing?) and make his escape before the inevitable happened. Neither of us wanted to see a dead swan rise to the surface.
Having never witnessed a mute swan attack that resulted in death before, I did some research to find out that it does happen occasionally. The saddest part perhaps, is that mute swans are said to mate for life, so there may now be a lonely female on the lake without her partner.