Kakīānau, the Black Swan

black swan

Black Swan from George Shaw's Zoological Lectures at the Royal Institution, 1808.

Kakīānau, the Black Swan

There are seven species of swans in the world, all pure white except for the Australian black swan and the South American black-necked swan.

The first European to see a black swan is believed to be the Dutch sailor Antonie Caen who described the species during his visit to the Shark Bay area in 1636. Later, the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh captured several birds on the Swan River, Western Australia in 1697, but many people in Europe did not believe him, as at that time it was believed that all swans were white. Three of the captured birds were taken to Batavia, where they lived for some time. However, the species wasn’t reported again until the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ in 1788. The black swan was first described scientifically by Dr. John Latham in 1790.

Before the arrival of the Māori in New Zealand, a related species of swan known as the New Zealand swan had developed here, but was apparently hunted to extinction. The black swan was introduced as a game bird from Australia to New Zealand in the 1860s but also probably reached here naturally at about the same time as the population grew and spread very rapidly. They are probably still arriving here from Australia naturally so should be classified as a native bird. The Heather and Robertson field guide says that “by the 1960s, there were well over 100,000 birds in New Zealand with 70,000 on Lake Ellesmere alone. However, the 1968 Wahine storm destroyed most of the feeding habitat at Lake Ellesmere and the population there crashed to 10,000 birds, never to quite recover.” The Fish and Game council offers another view of its sudden decline, saying that from the 1970s on farm silt run-off killed the water plants that swan depend on. Starving birds began to eat grass, leading to culls in which many thousands of the birds were killed until their numbers adapted to their impoverished circumstances.

The main concentrations of the birds are now to be found on coastal lakes and lagoons around the South Island and in the Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay in the North Island, as well as inland lakes in the Waikato and Rotorua. About 5000 birds are legally shot each year out of a national population estimated at 60,000.

Nesting habits depend upon the locality and food supply but may nest colonially. The black swan is very aggressive when defending its territory and nest from intruders, including other swans. Only about one in five of New Zealand’s black swans nests in any year, and no more than a third of the birds present at a breeding area attempt to nest. The birds heap available plant material, usually rushes, in piles and line with down. Usually, five or six greenish white eggs are laid. Incubation, by both parents, takes about five weeks. Cygnets are led to the water within 24 hours of hatching. At territorial sites they are reared in family broods but in colonies four or more broods may be reared collectively, attended by only one pair of adults.

For most of their life prior to breeding, black swans seem to leave the place where they were born for marine and estuarine habitats. Lake Ellesmere birds disperse for coastal Otago and Southland, Lake Wairarapa birds cross Cook’s Strait to the Marlborough Sounds and Farewell Spit and Waikato birds make for the harbours of Northland. Occasionally we see black swans here at Ohiwa which undoubtedly come from the Rotorua Lakes breeding population. However, when breeding age is attained, they usually return to their birth place and remain there for the rest of their long lives, some 20 years.

Diet is mainly leaves of submerged aquatic plants such as Ruppia, Egeria and Zostera but they will also graze on pasture grass and clovers, much to the ire of farmers. Their voice is a high pitched bugling in flight or among flocks on water, a loud hiss in defence of nest or young and a shrill whistle. The wings whistle in flight.

The black swan is the state bird of Western Australia.

—  Ohiwa Harbour, 2003.

black swan

Black swan from John Gould's Birds of Australia, 1840–48.

black swan juveniles, chicks and adults

Juvenials, same season chicks and the adults, Royal Wellington Golf Course, 2021.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Genera: Cygnus
Species: atratus
Sub Species:  
Other common names:  —


Description:  — 

Native bird

Male, 120cm, 6kg; female, 5kg. Black with white tipped crimson bill. Juvenile brown with dull red bill.

Where to find:  — 

Widespread and abundant with greatest numbers on large coastal or inland lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Lake Wairarapa, Lake Ellesmere.

Poetry:  — 

As I lie at rest on a patch of clover
In the Western Park when the day is done.
I watch as the wild black swans fly over
With their phalanx turned to the sinking sun;
And I hear the clang of their leader crying
To a lagging mate in the rearward flying,
And they fade away in the darkness dying,
Where the stars are mustering one by one.
O ye wild black swans, 'twere a world of wonder
For a while to join in your westward flight,
With the stars above and the dim earth under,
Trough the cooling air of the glorious night.
As we swept along on our pinions winging,
We should catch the chime of a church-bell ringing,
Or the distant note of a torrent singing,
Or the far-off flash of a station light.

From the northern lakes with the reeds and rushes,
Where the hills are clothed with a purple haze,
Where the bell-birds chime and the songs of thrushes
Make music sweet in the jungle maze,
They will hold their course to the westward ever,
Till they reach the banks of the old grey river,
Where the waters wash, and the reed-beds quiver
In the burning heat of the summer days.

O ye strange wild birds, will ye bear a greeting
To the folk that live in that western land?
Then for every sweep of your pinions beating
Ye shall bear a wish to the sunburnt band,
To the stalwart men who are stoutly fighting
With the heat and drought and the dust-storm smiting,
Yet whose life somehow has a strong inviting,
When once to the work they have put their hand.

Facing it yet! O my friend stout-hearted,
What does it matter for rain or shine,
For the hopes deferred and the grain departed?
Nothing could conquer that heart of thine.
And thy health and strength are beyond confessing
As the only joys that are worth possessing.
May the days to come be as rich in blessing
As the days we spent in the auld lang syne.

I would fain go back to the old grey river,
To the old bush days when our hearts were light;
But, alas! those days they have fled for ever,
They are like the swans that have swept from sight.
And I know full well that the strangers' faces
Would meet us now is our dearest places;
For our day is dead and has left no traces
But the thoughts that live in my mind to-night.

There are folk long dead, and our hearts would sicken-
We should grieve for them with a bitter pain;
If the past could live and the dead could quicken,
We then might turn to that life again.
But on lonely nights we should hear them calling,
We should hear their steps on the pathways falling,
We should loathe the life with a hate appalling
In our lonely rides by the ridge and plain
In the silent park a scent of clover,

And the distant roar of the town is dead,
And I hear once more, as the swans fly over,
Their far-off clamour from overhead.
They are flying west, by their instinct guided,
And for man likewise is his rate decided,
And griefs apportioned and joys divided
By a mightly power with a purpose dread.

—  A.B. (Banjo) Paterson

O ailing Love, compose your struggling wing!
Confess you mortal; be content to die.
How better dead, than be this awkward thing
Dragging in dust its feathers of the sky;
Hitching and rearing, plunging beak to loam,
Upturned, disheveled, uttering a weak sound
Less proud than of the gull that rakes the foam,
Less kind than of the hawk that scours the ground.
While yet your awful beauty, even at bay,
Beats off the impious eye, the outstretched hand,
And what your hue or fashion none can say,
Vanish, be fled, leave me a wingless land . . .
Save where one moment down the quiet tide
Fades a white swan, with a black swan beside.

—  Edna St Vincent Millay

Credit for the photographs: — 

Jaclyn Kras

Illustration description: — 

Shaw, George, Zoological Lectures at the Royal Institution, 1808.

Gould, J. Birds of Australia, 1840–48.

Reference(s): — 

Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Burbidge, A., Reader’s Digest, Complete Book of New Zealand Birds, 1985.

Page date & version: — 

Wednesday, 30 August, 2023; ver2023v1