Birds in the News

Untying the Knot

These male swans needed rescuing—from themselves.

It takes a lot of effort for swans to appear undignified; their elegance is coveted by dancers and divers alike. But when it comes to the heat of the battle, all that illustrious grace is forgotten. Sometimes it gets so brutal that the two competitors will become hopelessly entangled, leaving them at the mercy of people passing by.

Brothers Alexander and Vitaly Drozdov discovered this tautly entwined twosome alongside a Latvian river in 2009 (their video only just went viral after being picked up by National Geographic). The siblings run a wildlife photography blog and frequently go birdwatching in the area. Carefully, one of the brothers unwinds the Mute Swans’ necks, wings, and feet, after what must have been an especially vigorous spat between the birds.

While tussling over territory, male Mute Swans will arch their necks over the competitor’s body, and use their beaks to bite each other’s back feathers. Locked in this violent grip, they continuously flap their wings to try and disarm one another. Usually, the weaker swan gives in and finally retreats—but it’s not uncommon for them to get knotted up before that happens. When the swans are this convoluted, they can suffer some serious damage. “Given how much they were [stuck together], I would have guessed they would have eventually drowned or starved if these people hadn't found them,” Brian K. Schmidt, a zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum’s Division of Birds, told National Geographic.

Such awkward accidents are seen in other birds, too. During courtship, Bald Eagles lock talons and spiral towards the earth in a nail-biting display; it typically ends as the birds break free, just before striking the ground. But in some cases, their talons become ensnared, leaving them to live with the embarrassment of being named the “erotically entangled eagles”, or being cited for indecently exposing themselves in a very public setting.

Luckily, for most birds, this isn’t a death sentence—as long as there’s a human around. At the deft hands of their rescuer, the Latvian swans were set free, and with a shake of their tail feathers, the birds went on their separate ways—their swagger fully restored.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”