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Even Swans sometimes get Divorced


Petra isn’t known for her philandering. A number of male swans attempted to make her acquaintance in the two years preceding December 2007 – but Petra rejected them all, for she was in love with a plastic swan-shaped pedal boat.

The romantic escapades of the black swan hit headlines around the world last year when she began following a white pedal boat around on the lake where she lived. When winter arrived, she refused to be separated from the boat when workers removed it from the lake for the winter. The local zoo found a place for the swan and the boat to spend the winter together.

But despite Petra’s love and devotion to her unusual choice of mate, and our own human desire to believe in life long commitments between creatures other than ourselves, it has been discovered that five percent of whooping swan pairs end in divorce, and as many as 1 in 10 pairs of mute swans split up.

Unlike with humans, the swans’ divorce process seems not to dissolve into years or rancour, unhappiness and debt.

One of the objectives of the Starting Over Show (the UK’s first divorce fair) taking place on 15 March in Brighton this year, is to provide the information and the inspirational support human beings need when going through relationship break ups. “We can’t help swans who are getting divorced” admits Suzy Miller, the shows producer, “but we can try to reverse the stigma over break up and help people feel supported through the process. If even swans can sometimes need to change partners, we shouldn’t make humans feel like failures because they haven’t made their relationship work for an entire lifetime.”


Swans, Wikipedia tells us, usually mate for life. Divorce, though, the entry goes on, “does sometimes occur, particularly following nesting failure.” Which perhaps explains why Petra, the famous black swan from the German town of Münster, finally ditched her boyfriend for a new beau. It is, after all, difficult to nest with a giant, plastic pedal boat.

Not many nests are wrecked by the rigours of the credit crunch, so what does drive this icon of romance, the swan that `mates for life’, to divorce? Biologists are scrutinizing bird families, from courtship to breakup, with new interest these days. For years, scientists assumed that birds which nested together pretty much stayed together without slipping off to visit alluring neighbours. In the 1980s, however, DNA analyses of nestlings revealed that the male who helps tend them is not always their genetic father. “A lot of birds are having a bit on the side,” says Jeffrey M. Black of the University of Cambridge in England, “so many theories about evolution and social behaviour have been turned on their heads.”

From this upset, studies of feathered divorce have begun to emerge. “I think you’re going to see a lot more,” Black predicts. Many researchers use the term “divorce” for paired birds that separate or fail to reunite during the next breeding opportunity. When the word first showed up in ornithology papers, “there was an uproar,” Black remembers. However, ornithologists didn’t seem to take to such proposed alternatives as “severance,” “breakage,” “dissolution,” or that masterpiece of neutrality, “nonretainment.”

Black has collected estimates of divorce rates in more than 100 species of birds. The percentage of pair bonds that break ranges from nearly 100, in house martins and greater flamingos, to roughly zero in Australian ravens and the waved albatross. Humans, who divorce in 40 to 50 percent of new marriages in the United States and are predicted to reach such levels in the UK, fall into the same range as the masked booby. Divorce rates differ not only among species but among different populations of the same species, much as humans in Hove untie the knot at a higher rate than those in Cheshire.

The frequency of deserting females does not surprise Andre Dhondt of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, who compares relative investments in reproduction. “There is more at stake for females than males,” he points out. To find out who benefits from a divorce, Dhondt has tallied the number of subsequent offspring of divorced male and female blue tits. “Typically, females improve their breeding success, but the males don’t,” he reports.

The singles scene can be tough for some species. Among red-billed gulls in a region with few males, 32 percent of females that lose their mates through death or divorce never breed again. Long-time gull watcher James A. Mills of Corning, N.Y., who reports that number, notes that some of these loners lived 10 more years.

“Luckily, humans don’t have to rely on being able to reproduce to find a happy partnership., comments Suzy Miller. But we do need a great deal of practical and emotional support to help us start over successfully when things don’t work out.” In humans, second or third-time around UK divorces have doubled since 1981, say official statistics. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five of all couples divorcing in 2005 already had one marriage break-up behind them.

But there is hope yet – apparently, Bewick’s swans never separate. Well… almost never.

To find out more and secure tickets for the Starting Over Show go to:, or visit the SOS Village resource site at


When Birds Divorce  Who splits, who benefits, and who gets the nest By Susan Milius

Jeffrey M. Black, Cambridge University, Department of Zoology, Downing St. Cambridge CB2 3EJ England
Andre A. Dhondt, Cornell University, Laboratory of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850

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