Swans are debate lords confirmed

Anybody who knows anything about swans knows that they are, as a whole, cantankerous assholes who will murder you if they get the chance. Science has now confirmed that they like squabbling so much, they’ll even sacrifice sleep for it.

Scientists studied the behaviour of mute and whooper swans, to see how they used their time and energy.

Watching four key behaviours – aggression, foraging, maintenance (preening, cleaning and oiling feathers) and resting – they found a “trade-off” between aggression and rest, meaning that “increased aggression is achieved at the expense of resting”.

The study, by the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), could help managers of nature reserves design habitats that reduce the need for aggression.

“These swans use aggression if there’s competition over foraging areas,” said Dr Paul Rose, from the University of Exeter and WWT.

“Our findings show this this requires a trade-off, and that both species reduce resting time to allow for this aggression.

“This was the strongest trade-off we found, but there was also a trade-off for both species between foraging and resting.

“However, there was no apparent trade-off between some behaviours, such as aggression and foraging, and aggression and maintenance.”

I find this unreasonably interesting. While some humans do skimp on activities in the “maintenance” category (I’m terrible about remembering to oil my feathers), I know I’m not alone in having sacrificed rest for the sake of a squabble. Internet fights aren’t going to help me make ends meet, even as a professional blogger, but they often feel important at the moment. I think they trigger instinctive emotional responses. Amusingly, I think that there’s more for us here than just a feeling of kinship with ornery dinosaurs. The researchers didn’t just quantify what swans will give up for a good fight, they also gave some thoughts on how to reduce swanflict in the future:

“By providing enough foraging spots for the birds, we can reduce the need for aggression around desirable feeding spots, giving them more time to rest,” Dr Rose said.

“This can help to ensure that migratory species don’t ‘push out’ non-migratory species when they mix in the same wintering locations.


But seriously – this feels very similar to the way our society deliberately makes life harder for us, so that we’ll sacrifice sleep, and compete with each other to survive. The answer is the same for us as it is for the swans – we have the resources to make sure that competition isn’t necessary for survival. That would peaceful co-existence far easier, but it would also mean that in those situations where there we do want to use competition, it’d be much more about excelling for the sake of excellence, rather than desperately fighting to win some sense of security and accomplishment.

We’re swans, is what I’m saying, and we need to redistribute foraging spots. Be sure to check back here for more deep insights into the similarities between humans and birds. This counts as evolutionary psychology, right?

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  1. says

    This is my ticket to fame. Soon I’ll be known as well as Coleridge was for his famous warning on the imminence of teenage newts.

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