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Episode 3 Black Swans

Elizabeth shares with Ilana and Hannah her knowledge about the discovery, appearance, ecology and queerness of the dark-bodied waterfowl native to Australia and New Zealand.

Hint: they’re definitely #parentinggoals!

Cover image alt text: Black swan swimming with an elegant, long curved neck.


  • Species introduction: 1:22

  • Description of the bird’s looks: 9:17

  • Black swan ecology: 16:01

  • C. atratus culture: 22:03

  • Queerness: 28:17

Content warnings: mention of homophobia (1:56-2:01), mention of colonialism (7:20-7:40)

  • To avoid content warnings in the transcript information on the start and end is found in bolded [].


Ilana (I): Hi everyone, and welcome to today's episode of Queerly Natural, where we talk about queerness in the natural world. We discuss different traits and qualities of animals, plants, fungi, and more and how they relate to queer identities in humans. Some may argue our identities are not natural and we are here to say, they queerly are! We are your hosts. I'm Ilana,

Hannah (H): I'm Hannah,

Elizabeth (E): And I'm Elizabeth.

H: Before we begin, I want to say thank you so much for all the support for our first and second episodes. A special thank you goes out to our Legacy Tree patron, Claire. If you want to support our show in other ways, please subscribe to the show and tell your friends! Doing so helps so much to spread our audience. In addition, the content warnings for this episode can be found in the episode description with time stamps so you can skip around as needed. Finally, we are so excited to present our episode on Cygnus atratus, otherwise known as the black swan. Elizabeth does an excellent job describing the bird, its way of life, and exactly how it's queer. Enjoy the episode.


E: Welcome to this week's episode of Queerly Natural: we're going to talk about black swans!

I: Ooohh.

[Discussion of Queer Movie & homophobia]

E: There's a movie that I've never watched- and it's gay; it's called Black Swan and I never watched it, but I did specifically read the summary of it yesterday on Wikipedia, so I could make gay jokes as we go. So I hope y'all are prepared.

H: I remember watching that as a closeted teen. Because you know, I watched anything with any hint of cannon queer representation at the time, and it was like not a very big selection. So…

E: Absolutely.

H: But I remember not being very satisfied by that.

E: Gotcha, gotcha. What'd you think?

H: I think, I remember it was like... I don't know that it was presented as a good thing that the main character was queer, from what I remember.

E: Gotcha. Okay. All right, fair. I'll take your word for it. Again, I haven't watched it. So, we might not need to make a bunch of puns. It was like a horror movie description?

H: Yeah.

I: Oh I didn't watch it then.

E: I was like, this is not what I expected from a gay ballet dancing movie! Like huh, not where I thought this was going.

I: Okay. It is ballet...

E: Yes.

H: Yeah it was like scary.

E: Yeah.

H: Yeah.

[End of content warning]

E: Okay so... black swans. So yeah, this week we're going to talk about black swans. Their scientific name is Cygnus atratus and they were first described scientifically by an Englishman named John Latham in 1790.

I: I would just like to acknowledge how well you stated their scientific name. You said it with confidence and I approve.

E: I'm so not sure if the pronunciation is right, but I decided, fake it till you make it everybody!

H: Yeah!

I: You said it with confidence: that's all you need, that's what I was taught.

E: Yeah, thanks, I love it.

H: Latin is dead, yeah.

E: Latin is dead, who can tell me I pronounced it wrong... right? Right. It's fine.

H: Exactly.

I: I guess my brother, but technically biological Latin and real Latin don't actually merge well.

E: Oh darn. Well I guess that makes me feel better that I never did take Latin. Because I was like, I should have taken Latin to help me with biology, but you know what, now I feel better.

I: Scientists like to make up words.

E: This is true.

H: Yeah, most names are like Latinized.

I: Yeah.

H: But I'm sure it would have been useful years ago, Elizabeth. When, you know, you used to have to publish official species descriptions in Latin still.

I: When you had to write in Latin.

H: Yeah when did that stop being a thing? Wasn't it like pretty recently?

I: When they realized no one spoke Latin anymore.

H: Yeah.

E: Right before 1790 is my best guess, because I was able to track down the book of his [Latham's] descriptions.

H: Oooh!

E: And the official description I have for you is very pompous. It was so old that the letter s's were f's in the writing. It was that old.

H: What? Is that like a thing?!

E: Yeah, did you know that?

I: No.

H: Fwan?

E: Yeah in really old documents, s's were f's. So you'll see like bafed instead of based or you'll see fwan instead of swan. And that's just like a normal thing in really old text.

I: I want to call them fwans now.

E: If you do that, I will understand your in-joke.

H: Did they say fwan?

E: Yeah everything has an ‘f’ instead of an ‘s’ so when I was typing it up I kept having to go back and fix myself, like 'oh no that's an s, that's an s. Okay got it.'

I: So we are talking about black fwans today guys.

E: Yes black fwans. First described fcientifically.

I: Perfect.

E: I'm not gonna be able to keep this up the whole episode. There's too many s's.

I: Please don't.

H: Yeah, yeah. It was a good bit.

E: Okay so yeah, 1790, you know those late days- actually before Darwin, so that was exciting for him.

I: Feventeen.

[Colonialism briefly discussed]

E: Right, but I was intrigued! [Latham] never actually saw any of the birds he described himself. He basically made friends with all of the other pompous British explorers and mailed them letters, which was basically emailing. I was gonna say he emailed them but you know, 1790. So he like mailed them all a bunch of letters and was like, 'Hey can I see your stuff that you collected?'. And so, they would just like send him pictures and he'd go meet up with them and look at their dead stuff. So John Latham, right, he never saw the live birds but he did do a little bit of research; he tracked down some old stuff. He found a letter that mentioned black swans from like one explorer to, presumably, some other scientist who was interested in it. A Mr. Wilson to a Dr. Somebody-or-other, and it was from 1698. So, clearly the birds were recognized before this guy put them in his book. But he also says that the natives, they called the species mogo, and I'm sure I murdered that pronunciation, but I thought it was really cool to find a native name for the species that somebody knew about a long time before this English dude. So mogo, black swans!

[End of discussion]

I: Yeah!

H: That's awesome, yeah.

E: A little bit of science drama: you know, the back in the day drama. I don't know if you guys know this, but Darwin got scooped by another author, and the same thing happened to this guy John Latham. When he published his book The General Synopsis of Birds, he didn't give the species scientific names. He just like did pictures and descriptions and then a bunch of people, including him, realized 'Wait! I don't get to name the species if I don't stick a Latin name on it.' So this guy named Johan Friedrich Gmelin, and I'm gonna say that with confidence because I watched a 40 second YouTube video on how to pronounce that last name. So if it's wrong, I'm not shocked at all. But this guy Johan published a list of scientific names. Literally, he just published the list of names for the birds that were described. He was like, 'Here we go, here's my contribution to science; all of the birds written up by this other man, I’m going to give them Latin names.'

I: So he gets his initial on the end of the name, now.

E: He does, he does, he did a good job. And I don't know- I couldn't find any record of how many species were actually in this book, A General Synopsis of Birds, but it was a lot. Because Gmelin got credit for most of the birds in the book but Latham still gets credit for naming about 80 species, including the black swan. So I don't know how many birds it was but it must have been a pretty big book.

I: I just want to name one species, I don't need 80!

E: Right?! That's so greedy! These 1800 scientists man, they just takin' the whole world and they don't leave anything for us. It's rude. I’m gonna have to like go climb a tree somewhere.

H: They had it easy though, they had it easy! But it's also kind of f***ed up because like the only reason they had it easy was because they were working during like the earlier stages of colonialism. Like while white people were still ‘discovering’ these places- and there’re huge air quotes around discovering- and ‘discovering’ these species.

E: Yeah.

H: Right, but I do think about that a lot, how they had it much easier.

E: Yeah, true. I don't want that attached, you’re right.

I: Hey, we could have it easy! We just get access to a herbarium or fungarium and just start DNAing everything. DNAing… *laugh* Sequencing the DNA of everything, we could probably find a few.

E: True, there's definitely a lot of unnamed species laying around... Alright, so back to the black fwans. The excerpt I was able to find of this original chapter, right, which I was very excited about, he actually has a little queer fact that he disguised in plain sight, like we keep talking about how biology does. So he mentions two female swans raising cygnets and taking turns incubating the same nest for three to four years at a time. As an example- you got this, you listening?- of the swan's ability to 'live in society with perfect complacency.'

H: What?!

E: Like 'Look, they're such good neighbors. They're raising up their own group of babies together! Aw isn't that cute?'

I: I like how the term complacency comes in.

H: That is just like... the most! Like... it's almost like he's purposefully being obtuse.

E: Yeah, but it is 1790. Like, I'm not surprised.

H: Yeah.

E: I was just really excited to find it when I was reading this chapter. I was like ‘Aah! Struggling through all these fs's was worth it, look at this queerness! I found a thing!' So I was very excited.

H: I'm glad. I'm glad that was in that for you.

I: Queerneff.


E: Disclaimer on the swan fact: he didn't say which species, right. He's just out here talking about swans in general. So, I don't know if he meant black swans, but still, lesbian swans! Pretty cool.

H: Hell yeah.

E: So, if you guys want to take a look at the pictures of the swans I sent you…

H: Ooh, we would love to.

I: Pictures!

H: Oh my gosh!

I: They look so fuzzy.

E: They're very fluffy.

H: I was expecting- you know how like a lot of things are named a color, and then like that color isn't there? Or like is barely there you know. Someone will be like, 'This is a red oak' and I'm like 'Why the f*** is it red though?'. Like where's the red, where is the red?!

E: So true, so true.

I: I think that's a lot of plant species.

H: But I was expecting it to be like that. Like a white swan with a spot of black, but these are like black swans.

I: With a spot of white.

E: Yes.

H: Yeah.

I: Two spots of white.

H: Which was like a nice surprise. It actually has the color, nice.

I: Well I guess we should get into descriptions, besides the fact that they are colored black.

E: Yes, some more detail for our listeners, please.

H: Okay.

I: We've got your general swan shape.

H: Yeah they're, they have the classic swan shape. Like our first photo has them making the little heart with the necks.

I: Yeah, the fun s-shaped neck.

H: Yeah.

I: They've got like a reddish beak with like a white slash at the front.

H: Yeah and the beak kind of- I don't know if it's like unique- that the beak coloration kind of goes up the nose toward the eyeball.

I: And then the eyeball's red. So, yeah, so the beak basically goes till it almost touches the eye.

H: The babies are so cute! Ooh!

I: Their feet are black though, not red.

H: Oh, interesting. They also have a spot of white, like when they're sitting in the water they're mostly kind of smooth, but the back of their wings are really fringy and like curly, and under their wing is like this big patch of white.

I: Yes, I used to know the name for that area but I forgot. It's been three years since I took ornithology.

H: Yeah, I've never taken ornithology.

I: But like under the wing area in the back is white.

H: I'm glad that there's a name for that area though, like ornithologists are thorough.

I: Yeah, I mean it's kind of important. A lot of birds have like a different color there.

H: Yeah.

I: They are really frilly in the back and I really like it.

H: Right? It's like they got some style: little, little pizzazz!

E: Yeah, they kind of look to me like they're wearing little feather tutus.

H: Their little babies are gray and like fuzzy and they have black bills.

I: Yeah. I was just looking at that; I guess the color changes as they age.

H: Yeah, which is interesting. I didn't know that happened.

I: Yeah, I wouldn't think of a bill changing color. I'd think of the puff changing color.

H: Yeah, like the feathers that they lose and regrow, yeah.

I: The downy feathers, yeah.

H: Like you don't lose and regrow the bill, right.

I: I think that covers most of the description, don't you?

H: Yeah, I can't really say much more.

I: Yeah, I mean it's the classic swan shape.

H: Just look like a swan, yeah. Fwan.

I: Yeah, fwan being swan. How did we do?

E: Alright, you did pretty good, actually. You hit pretty much everything. So I have two descriptions for you and you guys can choose which one you want, or both, depending. I have the one written by John Latham, which took me a while to sort out the s's versus the f's because there were a lot of both, and then I have like a real-English one that I compiled from different sources that you can understand. So, you wanna hear both?

I: What makes you happy? I don't wanna throw out all your efforts with the s's and f's.

H: Yeah,

E:I am gonna read the really ridiculous one first if that works for you guys, and we can just like stare at it in silence for a moment, and then I'll read the other one that makes sense.

H: Sounds good

E: From 1801: “a large bird, not inferior in size to our European species, and extends from the tip of one wing to that of the other, four feet eight inches: the bill is large and red; towards the end paler; on the base of the upper mandible, at the nostrils, a bifid protuberance; the under mandible white beneath, and red on the sides: irises red: the general color of the plumage is deep black; but the greater part of the second quills, amid all the prime ones, are white; also two or more white feathers on the coverts: belly and thighs ash color: legs flesh-colored brown. In what other particulars the female differs from the male, we are not told, further than that the protuberance at the top of the bill is wanting.”4

H: What does that mean, wanting? The protuberance is wanting?

E: Yeah, okay. I had to look up so much of that definition. I had never heard of the word bifid before this. I tried it with an s first and that got a red error but the bifid didn't. It was a struggle.

H: It was actually an f that time, yeah.

E: It was. I struggled, I'm telling you. So okay, in real English, here's how it works. The adult birds have deep black feathers almost exclusively, with some white wing feathers at the tips of their wings- the coverts, like you said. I think that's the word you were looking for Ilana.

H: Oooh.

I: Yes, coverts!

H: Coverts.

E: Yeah. Their eyes range from reddish in color: which are the males, right, the males have the reddest eyes. The females can have whitish-pinkish-brown eyes. So I think it's just a more faded red usually…

H: Aah, interesting.

E: Both sexes have the bright red bill with the white line. Um, the juveniles do have black eyes and black bills when they're young and as they age they gain those colorations. Like you guys said, their look is classic swan: long arched neck, raised eyebrows... They have dark gray legs and webbed feet. The part that I thought was interesting that you guys were never gonna be able to get was their weight and wingspan. So they weigh 3.7 to 8.7 kilograms- which is quite a range, right- or 8.1 to 19.2 pounds for our US listeners, like myself, and they have a wingspan of 1.6 to 2 meters or 5 ¼ to 6 ½ feet. I am 5 1/4 feet tall.

H: Whoa!

E: Right! That's my height!

H: Yeah!

I: Why are swans wider than me? I am tall- not wide, I'm not that wide but I'm also not that tall... well, I am taller than some swans, not all.

E: Right?! Okay, but I am the the length of the shortest swan's wingspan, like if you put out the one with the dinkiest wings and I laid atop it, it would be the same length and that's just kind of sad. But cool. They got big wings, so I think that's neat.

H: Powerful!

E: Yeah! They they use them for a lot of things; we'll talk about that.

I: Also they have raised eyebrows. Swans are now Vulcans.

E: I know. I was like, ‘where are these raised eyebrows?’ and then I went and looked and I couldn't unsee it you guys. So once you see the eyebrows, you can't go back. You see them?

H: I'm looking now.

E: They just kind of look surprised. If you look at that historical drawing of it, you really see... Yeah. Yeah that surprise: you can't unsee it, I'm telling you.

H: Yeah, I see it.

E: So black swans, like I mentioned before, mostly live in Australia or New Zealand. They are truly native to Australia and they are a naturalized invasive species in New Zealand.

H: Hi! This is Hannah from the future. I'm here to explain that naturalized in biology means a species that was not originally from a place. It did not evolve there or co-evolve there with the other species that exist in that place. But it has come to inhabit a role in the ecosystem, and this is contrasted with invasive species which are foreign species that are again not from where they are [now found], but invasive species don't have a role in the ecosystem. They don't have something that consumes them, keeping the [population] in check; they just take over the whole thing and that's why they cause problems. Back to the show.

E: Populations also live in a long list of countries: Spain, England, Indonesia, Japan, China and reportedly the US, along like the California edge of the Pacific Ocean... yes Pacific’s on the west. Most of those were pets and then they just escaped and now they're all wild breeding populations.

H: Yeah, probably.

I: Someone went ‘ooh pretty’ and took it with them.

H: Wonderful.

I: That's most swans in the US I think, or all swans (fact check: there are native swans in the US).

E: Yeah. So as related to this long list of countries with black swans, their conservation status is Of Least Concern, which means we have assessed them and decided they're not going anywhere unless we really mess something up, so not endangered. Nothing to worry about, they're here to stay, which is nice. There are 165,000 to 180,000 black swans in Australia according to studies, but researchers have expressed concern about populations shrinking with continued development as humans start to expand into coastal areas, or you know, break down wetlands, either shrinking or destroying them to basically build buildings and roads like we do.

H: Habitat loss.

E: Yeah, habitat loss. Kind of a problem for every species on the planet except us, woo hoo!

I: I think jellyfish are doing okay.

H: I'm pretty sure habitat loss is like the top threat to, yeah, species survival when... I don't know, I think like a lot of people might think it's like climate or something. And like in the long term, climate is an issue but like the immediate problem is development and habitat loss.

E: Yes, I found out about this in a class last semester. I can say for sure you're right; habitat loss is the greatest threat to other species followed by climate change as the second most.

H: Yeah.

E: So, I think that surprised a lot of people. It surprised me.

H: Yeah, right.

E: So stop building new houses guys! Let's all live in tiny houses.

H: We have enough. Yeah.

E: You would think so. Anyway... Other concerns, right, general climate change, vulnerability to El Niño and La Niña events. These guys prefer to live in permanent freshwater lakes but they'll live in any freshwater wetlands, and they will travel opportunistically when ephemeral wetlands become available for like extra food sources. Ephemeral wetlands, if you guys didn't know, they kind of just pop up seasonally if there's a lot of rain in an area or maybe some flooding. Ephemeral wetlands are kind of there and then they're gone but animals can use them for extra habitat, as can faster-moving other species, insects and maybe some plants. I don't know.

H: Nice.

E: And except from traveling between wetlands, they're pretty sedentary. You know, they lay their eggs, they sit in one spot. They mostly eat aquatic vegetation, which I got too curious about and looked up and that's kind of like four or five main species they've been documented eating, but mostly it's algae which is nice and then wigeon grass which I thought was a pretty cool name. Wigeon grass (dramatic).

H: Ooh.

E: It's almost like pigeon but not. Wigeon.

H: Yeah, wigeon.

E: I don't know what a wigeon is! What's a wigeon?

H: Really? Me either! Yeah, I'm Googling this. Is this spelled like pigeon with a w?

E: I want to see a wigeon. Okay, that makes me very happy. I'm excited.

I: Wigeons are their own cool cute animal! It's fine, they're adorable.

H: Ooh! Yeah.

E: They're a kind of duck! That's perfect.

I: Yeah. They're adorable and I love them. They look bald. They kind of look like bald mallards.

H: Or like maybe like a little less colorful wood duck... cute as hell though.

E: Aah yeah! Somewhere between a mallard and a wood duck. That's super cute. I like them.

H: I love it.

I: Yeah. They look like mallards with like a white stripe on their head.

E: Look at these babies. Oh, I bet it's called widgeon grass because they eat it. Oh, okay, I got it. I'm seeing the dots connect. I like it, alright.

I: They're really cute and they're small so they're adorable.

E: Yeah, we all are, it's fine. So, yes, um, so black swans are primarily diurnal, right? They mostly are active during the day but they do feed at dusk and they travel at night when they're going between wetlands. And this surprised me. How long do you think black swans live?

H: Uh, 70 years, a long a** time.

E: Ooh, not quite. That was, that was too exciting.

I: 17.

E: Longer than that. Okay, we've got an established range.

H: 30! 30 years.

E: They can live up to 40 years in the wild.

H: 40 years!

E: Yeah, close.

H: Damn.

I: 40. Wow.

E: 40 years in the wild! I was surprised. I did not think swans were that old.

I: Birds be birding!

H: Yeah, birds got it in them. The cold-bloodedness.

E: Breeding season is pretty long, cause you know, they live in pretty southern spaces where the weather isn't super variable. It's usually February to September. Parents will lay the eggs and incubate them until they hatch, right. So they sit on them, keep them warm. Incubation lasts 35 to 48 days, so like a month and a half. The hatchlings, like you guys saw in the pictures right, they're really fuzzy, they're all downy and they obviously can't fly because they don't have feathers yet, but they fledge at 110 to 140 days old. So, I know how many months that is- that's like four months, yeah, four months-ish.

I: Amost four.

E: Until then they stay with their parents and their siblings and they actually have a pretty cohesive family unit and that lasts for at least 70 to 120 days depending on what the young do. And the way they maintain their family units is really cool; it's called the greeting ceremony. I will get into that in a minute. But basically if you've ever seen like a mama duck with her ducklings, it's really cute, basically the mama's just going where she wants and the ducklings are all following her in a little line like a choo-choo train.

H: Oooh.

E: It's the same thing with swans, except there's usually two swan parents at the front of the line and sometimes the babies ride on their backs, which just makes me so happy!

I: Adorable.

H: That is so cute!

E: Isn't it so cute? I can't, my heart.

H: I can't wait to hear about the ceremony, ugh!

E: Yeah! So okay, the greeting ceremony is used to indicate closeness, like affection-wise, and strengthen bonds between swans.

H: Oooh!

E: Okay so and it's not just used within a family like parent and offspring, it's also used between mating pairs.

H: Aah.

E: Basically, the ceremony is... They lift their wings up like they're gonna get ready to fly and they call repeatedly and they extend their necks and lift their bills to the air. So if you think like an airplane tilting up to fly, it's kind of like that while they squawk. Isn't it cute?

H: That sounds goofy as hell.

I: They just want to be tall!

E: If I had a long neck like that I would have it stretched all the time to look tall too.

H: Right?

E: So this is done frequently within a family and, direct quote, “almost incessantly” between strong mated pairs. Isn't that cute?

H: Yeah, they love each other.

I: Baby birds just be like ‘parents, parents stop please, please stop.’


E: Right? ‘You're embarrassing us. Don't do that anymore.’ Yeah, so there's a more emphatic version of the greeting ceremony, which is called the triumph ceremony.

H: Oooh.

E: And it's basically the same thing, except just extra. Like they're louder calls and the movements are more enthusiastic, more vigorous. And this can happen if, you know, the male repels an attacker, right, if they're defending their territory successfully.

H: ‘I won!’

E: If the young have hatched successfully-

H: ‘We did it!’

E: Or once they cement their pair bond. So, it's just like a big celebratory thing, which is really cute.

I: (singing) Let's celebrate with squawking, yeah!

H: That is so cute! I love it.

E: Yeah! It's so great. So back to the families: sometimes the juveniles- right, the baby swans which are called cygnets- sometimes the cygnets leave as soon as they fledge, as soon as they get their feathers. Sometimes they stick around for six to twelve months or until the next breeding season starts, and sometimes they stick with their parents for up to eight years. Eight years.

H: *gasp* Dude, nah! I'm curious about the rates. Like, how many of them stay for that long?

E: I don't think it's common that they stay that long. But like, most of the ecology that I could find about these swans was from captive observations, but also some like supplemental wild observations. And in this group of like 38 study swans, there was like two that stayed with their families after they hatched for like a while.

H: Oh my gosh.

H: One of them was a female and she followed her parents around for eight years and the other was a male who stuck around for like three or four years, I think. But sometimes the males have... an ulterior motive according to my readings.

H: Oh no.

E: He kind of waits until his dad isn't around anymore and...

H: Oh no.

E: And then he mates with his mom.

H: Oedipus?

E: Yeah. It's a whole Oedipus thing, so that's a little concerning.

H: That's nasty.

E: Like I said it's not very common.

H: That'll only cause problems after like eight generations or something, so they're probably fine.

E: Probably fine. Everything's fine.

H: Yeah, but I feel like those those male uh swans could use like some therapy or something.

E: Yeah, somebody just needs to really sit them down and be like ‘have you noticed there's other women in the world besides your mother?’

H: Yeah.

E: ‘You should, you should think about this.’

H: It's okay that you love her but like, not like that.

E:Not that way. Poor Ilana, she looks so unhappy.

I: I don't think swans have a concept of this.


I: I don't know, I'd be concerned if they really had a concept of morals.


E: That's probably okay; if they did [have morals] I would be more concerned. If they thought it was morally wrong and they did it anyway, that would be concerning.

I: It would be really interesting.

H: Some of the things they do would be really f*** up.

E: Okay so ignoring the, uh, incest, we're gonna move on. So most juvenile swans, right, they have their full adult plumage and sexual maturity by about 18 months old, at which time they usually start to seek out a partner and form pair bonds. But the ones who don't couple up right away, who aren't the high school sweethearts, they form little flocks of like single friends and they stick together for a bit. So the process of pair bonding is basically the first bird, which is usually the male- in a heterosexual interaction- so the first bird is the male and he like pretends to chase an intruder, right. And so he's like going going going and the female follows him, and then after he's like repelled his imaginary attacker he turns around and he sees the female following him, and they do the greeting ceremony. And they just kind of do this over and over until they've done it enough that they feel their bond is strong and then they do a triumph ceremony and they're a couple. And it's cute.

I: It's their wedding!

E: I know, the triumph ceremony is like their little wedding and it's really cute. So then after they’re bonded pairs, they claim their own territory for like laying their eggs, raising their young. And they are very fierce about defending their territories once they have a partner. Swans without that stable pair bond- some of those juvenile flocks or sometimes older birds, there's some flexibility in the bonds, we'll talk about that- but swans that don't currently have a strong partner will usually group up in like a loose colony and lay their eggs in one big section, so like a colonial nesting area. And the idea there is that the combined threat of those swans protecting against invaders makes the group overall safer even if each swan is only defending its own nest. So like safety in numbers basically. The sad fact attached to this is that up to a third of black swan eggs have been lost due to nest abandonment by the parents and territorial disputes, like I said [they’re] pretty common and they can result either in the eggs being destroyed or the deaths of hatchlings or even adult birds during the fighting, which is pretty sad. But like obviously they're used to it because their population is doing okay. So, I guess it just be like that if you're a swan sometimes.

I & H: Yeah.

H: They gotta just account for it I guess, because like it's not like some outside force you know.

E: Right we'll get into that, yeah for sure. Alright, you guys ready for the good part?

I: Queer swans!

H: Yes! Yeah. Why it's queer? Yes!

E: You want to know why they're queer?

H: Please, I can't wait!

E: Yesss! Okay, so the big thing about black swans that's queer is that male black swans are known pretty commonly to form those pair bonds between two guys, and they're stable, they're long-lasting, they can stay together for years.

H: Awww.

E: The duration of that is really similar to male-female pairings. Sometimes they stay together for life, sometimes they get like divorced and they go their own ways and they find a new partner.

H: That's adorable.

E: It's pretty cute and they stick together long-term. This is a solid thing, okay. So, the greeting ceremony we talked about is commonly performed between all pairs. Right? We talked about how that's like a big bonding thing. But two males in a relationship also perform a courtship behavior that's called head dipping and it's kind of like foreplay, I guess, for them, because after they usually do the dirty.

H: Wait, would the heterosexual couples do the dirty after the greeting ceremony?

E: I don't know. It wasn't really explicitly talked about. I think [the heteros] do this courtship behavior but it's less frequent and it doesn't last as long. So you can take that how you will.

H: Ahh.

I: I just need to know: are the males bowing to each other?

E: It kind of is. It's called head dipping and so basically what happens is they're in a like pool of water and they immerse first their head, then their neck, then the rest of their body, and then come back up and do it over again. So in my head they're like doing the water worm, like that's what's happening. They're doing the worm in water for up to 20 or 25 minutes, and then they get it on.

H: Getcha in the mood, the sexy worm! The sexy water worm!

E: Exactly! It's their thing you know. Who am I to judge? The guys like it, they're very attracted. I'm glad we don't have to do a sexy water worm; that would not be good for me as a human.

H: For 25 minutes? I don't have the stamina.

E: Who does?! Alright so, one of the reasons I was really excited to talk about these guys is because they're really good parents.

H: Aww.

E: Yeah! Some of the reasoning behind that is that during the mating season, two male partners defend territories that are a lot bigger and usually better located like a spot with more food, a spot with cleaner water, wherever the good spot is- they've got it. They call dibs. They'll fight anybody who wants it, and they usually win because there's two guys.

H: Nice, gay dominance! I love it.

E: So yeah they claim like WAY larger territory, like I was shocked to read this. You're not gonna believe the difference in size, but male swans have been seen to annex almost a whole pond for themselves just them two, which is up to 1,500 to 3,300 square feet for their breeding space. You want to guess how many square feet the male-female pairs usually end up with?

H: How much?

I: 30.

E: Not wrong Ilana, 15 to 60 square feet for most breeding female-male pairs.

H: *shocked noises*

I: I guessed right!

E: The gays have like the mansion to end all mansions and then everybody else is just like in a little hut around them. So you know they've got all this territory, it's all primed for them, and they don't put it to waste, right? They get eggs and thus offspring in two different ways. One, they invite a female to join their pairing. So they call her in and they're like ‘hey, come sit with us’ and they build a nest together, they mate and wait for her to lay her eggs, and then they chase her off and do the incubating themselves. So it's kind of like the opposite of queerbaiting- it's like straight baiting.


E: That's kind of all I’ve got to say about that one. But to be fair they're better parents, so I'll get into that too. The other thing that they do is they chase hetero pairs away from their nesting space and take over the already laid eggs. Like I said they're really good in territorial battles, they're stronger than male-female pairs. So they just claim it for themselves.

I: Fear the gay swans.

E: Right? They are so fierce! These gay boys do not want to be messed with! Rawh! But like also there's nest abandonment sometimes right, so they can step up there. And so these guys do this incubating equally- which is not normal for male-female pairs, usually the female does the incubating and the male defends the territory- but the males will swap out who's defending and who's incubating pretty regularly. So they share all the parental duties.

H: Tear down gender roles, yes!

I: That's really interesting. You would think instead that they would like invite the female in, have her incubate, and both go off on their own. But they have that like desire to incubate that you would normally expect in a female. It's interesting.

H: They want to do the work, yeah.

E: They do! They want to be the parents, it's very cute. And so they incubate, you know, they make sure they hatch well, and then they raise the goslings themselves. Just you know, two bros, two dads having a great time.

I: So the black swans, basically they have gay couples, gay marriage, and gay adoption.

E: Okay here's the part that's cool. Homosexual parents are way more successful in raising healthy young than hetero parents are. Or you know, two males- not homosexual versus heterosexual, we've talked about the labels- but two male parents have an 80% success rate in raising healthy babies while male-female pairs only have a 30% success rate.

H: What?!

I: Wow! That is huge.

E: It's a 50% difference you guys! You want to have two dads, if you're a baby black swan you want two dads. That's just, that's better for you.

H: I'm curious how much of that has to do with just how much more resources they have, you know because they have like the larger territory.

E: Yeah, so it's hypothesized part of it is territory, right, there's more food to go around, and then they also think it has something to do with the sharing of the incubation duties. They think it's healthier for the eggs to have kind of that equal care.

I: Maybe it's also healthier for the parents for once the young do hatch, because like it's not like one's sitting there and can't go get food when it needs it if they're switching on and off.

E: Right and so it's harder for them to take care of the babies, yeah. Um, so, yeah. Okay, so 5 to 6% of pair bonds- this is roughly estimated, nobody's been able to go survey every black swan everywhere- but roughly 5 to 6% of pair bonds are between two males, right. So on average 13 to 20% of male black swans are in a same-sex partnering every year and 20 to 25% of successful families overall have two dads.

H: Wow.

E: Right? So 5 to 6% [couples] to 20 to 25% success. So they're really good at their jobs, all I'm saying. These two dads are rocking, they're rocking their world.

I: Birds have imprinting, [or] a lot of them do, and their parents heavily decide who they wish to mate with in the future. I wonder if young raised in a two-male family are more likely for the males to end up in a two male pair or not... curious.

H: The gays indoctrinating those kids.

E: That's a good question. I don't know, Ilana. I did read on their imprinting process but it didn't speculate at all on like attachment to the growth and pairing choices. I think that's a good question! It's a question we've been trying to deal with with people.

I: Might not be studied yet.

E: I don't think it is. Somebody needs to come study the gay swans you guys! Listeners step up, step up let's go. Nobody's really done a lot of research on these. So yeah only about 20% of black swans, like overall, nest in any given year, so it's a really low reproductive rate. Um and in some populations, right some areas, up to 90% of the adult birds aren't breeding every year. So like in any given year 90% aren't [reproducing], not that some birds just never reproduce. Though that does happen.

H: Wow.

I: That's valid.

H: Do they take like years off? Like if they breed one year then do they like…

E: Yeah, sometimes they do.

I: Sometimes, you just don't want a kid.

E: Yeah, I don't think it's a set pattern, or if it is we haven't figured it out, but yeah. They tend to, you know... Nobody's really going at it every season from what I've seen. Another really cool aspect for you guys, possibly the most successful parenting strategy there is of all of these: 14% of black swans are poly.

H: Oooh!

E: Which is pretty great! And so that polyamory group, that group is usually two males and one female, right. So it's kind of like the best of both worlds, the female doesn't get kicked out after she lays her eggs- she gets to like stay and co-parent.

H: Oh nice!

E: And so yeah. What usually happens- and this is like prime reproductive success, honestly, this is genius. There's a lot of stable trios that have been seen- I say a lot. Like out of the percentage of birds studied. But whatever, the males take over parenting duties of hatched offspring, right, so as soon as the babies hatch that's the guys’ job [and] they raise them full time, while the female lays and incubates a new clutch. So they just keep cycling through kids. They're just going, going, going.

H: Oh damn!

E: Right! I was like damn, y’all busy! But like in a good way, I guess. You know. You do you, you do you.

I: It takes a village- or a flock- to raise a bunch of kids.

H: Or a triad.

E: Yes! It does, it's working well for them yeah. And the thing that I thought was interesting, right, because I was like, ‘what's the dynamics of this male-male-female situation?’ Usually one male will primarily mate with the female and stay close to her. So I don't know if he helps incubate but he's like sticking around her, staying close to home base, and then the other male takes on protecting duties full time. So like he defends the territory, he ranges outward; you know, he stays away and does his thing and then he gets to come home at night and be with his partners.

H: Aww!

E: But yeah I thought that was really cool.

H: That is really cool. I was worried it was gonna be like the bad cheating type of polyamory, even though I know you wouldn't do that. But I'm so glad it's like the ethical, you know, wholesome polyamory. Yeah.

E: Yeah, it's the cute kind you guys. It's really sweet. I thought that was really cool. And then the last set of info I have on black swans that I just thought was really cool, was non-traditional families, right. In addition to the two gay dads, and the two dads and a mom situation, we also have foster parenting, and that can happen with like any kind of pair bond basically. In some colonies over two-thirds of the cygnets- right, the baby swans- are raised in broods that contain offspring from 2 to 4 different sets of parents. So they kind of just shove them all in one spot; it's called a brood amalgamation. This can have, they can have up to 40 cygnets in this group and then, you know, somebody takes charge of them. Sometimes it's not even the parents directly related to the cygnets, right, none of their biological parents.

H: Wow.

E: Just somebody else taking care of them, but like... you know, they step up. Like you said, it takes a flock to raise a child, Ilana. They're making it work for them in this foster situation.

H: I mean we hire babysitters; we have babysitters watch our kids. So it's not unprecedented.

E: Yeah! A lot of children, um, many children.

I: Things don't always work out.

E: Yes, it's kind of the same, so yeah it's like foster parenting. Sometimes adoptions occur when swans steal eggs from nearby nests; that's not only between like gay couples. Hetero couples are guilty of it as well. They'll just roll their neighbor's eggs into their nest if the neighbor’s like either defeated or not looking.

H: Pretty badass.

E: Single parenting is really common, which I thought was pretty cool. Like sad for the bird, but pretty cool in terms of human connection. So like I mentioned [earlier], those pair bonds- sometimes they disintegrate, sometimes you know they break it off, and so that's called divorced in the literature. It is literally called a divorce.

I: I think that's a really awesome version of how different families can really be.

E: Right? Things don't always work out. And so the problem is, the divorce usually takes place during incubation. I guess when you're sitting in one spot for a month and a half, like there's a lot of time for problems to arise. So they end up single parenting- and they do a pretty good job sounds like, and then the thing that I thought was interesting: a different version of the divorce [that] they called a separation. I'm not even kidding, they called it a separation. One bird takes the already hatched young to raise and then the other one stays to take care of the remaining eggs to raise them. So like they just go their own ways with their own set of kids.

H: Oh.

E: Do their own thing.

H: Nice.

E: So all in all I just thought the black swans were a very cool group of queer non-traditional parents, and I liked that very much, yeah. What do you guys think, any big thoughts?

H: I love it, so cool.

E: It made me really happy when I found them. I was squealing for awhile.

H: And I love just how complex it is. Like you said, it's almost as complex as like the different options that we have for child rearing.

E: Parallels our society in some ways, and you know not in some ways. Like I hope people who are concerned- which aren't probably listening to our podcast- but if people are concerned about gay people stealing your children, that doesn't happen in humans. We don't do that.

H: Yeah.

E: We go through the legal process almost all of the time.

H: Most of the time. (laughter)

E: So yeah. I don't know, I thought it was wholesome, and I really enjoyed reading the book I found most of this material in. You may not have heard of it, listeners, but it's called Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. It's one of the only established books on this topic, at least at its time of writing. Ilana's located some good ones written since then which is awesome, but this one was written in 1999 and it's just a really cool book. It's called Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity and the author spends like the first 250 pages talking about the concepts, the way that science has ignored it, reframing the concept- not just in western science but merging it with indigenous views and trying to make sure that indigenous peoples have a seat at the table to really talk about this, because a lot of indigenous world views have this queerness centered in it. And as someone who didn't grow up with the concept of biology being rightfully queer, I thought that was really amazing.

I: Yeah... We've talked chimps, fish, and now swans- we'll see where we go next, bye!

H: Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Zeitzer, Elizabeth Fuhrman, and Hannah Roden, with music by Migfus_20. Thank you, Migfus, for putting your music in the creative commons. You are very talented. Visual design for the show is done by Ilana Zeitzer. To get updates about the podcast, follow us @Queerlynatural on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We also upload all of our sources and episode transcripts to our website, Above all else, if you liked what you heard today, tell your friends! Thank you so much for listening, and keep an eye out for our next episode coming October 1st. Until next time! Stay queer, and remember: clearly, it’s natural.


  1. Braithwaite, L. W. (1981). Ecological Studies of the Black Swan II.* Colour and Plumage Changes, Growth Rates, Sexual Maturation and Timing and Frequency of Breeding. In Aust. Wddl. Res (Vol. 8).

  2. Braithwaite, L. W. (1981). Ecological Studies of the Black Swan III. Behaviour and Social Organization (Vol. 8).

  3. Braithwaite, L. W. (1982). Ecological Studies of the Black Swan IV*. The Timing and Success of Breeding on Two Nearby Lakes on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. In Wildl. Res (Vol. 9).

  4. Jackson, C. (2004). Animal Diversity Website: Black Swan, Cygnus atratus. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from

  5. Kraaijeveld, K., Gregurke, J., Hall, C., Komdeur, J., & Mulder, R. A. (2004). Mutual ornamentation, sexual selection, and social dominance in the black swan. Behavioral Ecology, 15(3), 380–389.

  6. Kraaijeveld K. (2005). Black Swans Cygnus atratus adopt related cygnets. Ardea, 93(2), 163–169.

  7. Latham, J. (1801). Supplement II. to The General Synopsis of Birds, 342-344.

  8. Rees, E. C., & Clausen, P. (2019). Conservation status of the world’s swan populations, Cygnus sp. and Coscoroba sp.: a review of current trends and gaps in knowledge.

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