Why there are so many swans in Iceland? Skip to content
Golli. A child feeds the swans at Reykjavík Pond (Tjörnin)
Golli. A child feeds the swans at Reykjavík Pond (Tjörnin)

Why there are so many swans in Iceland?


Iceland is home to many migratory birds that breed here in the summer months and then winter abroad. In fact, Iceland’s birdlife is renowned for its diversity and many travellers come here for the sole purpose of seeing bird cliffs like Látrabjarg, Grímsey island, or the puffins of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. In fact, just one little corner of the highlands (Þjórsárver) is the single most important breeding ground for pink-footed geese in the entire world!

The same is true for swans, which have important breeding grounds in Iceland. The swan native to Iceland is known as the whooper swan in English, or simply Álft in Icelandic (recognizable in such place names as Álftanes, a peninsula near the capital region and Álftavatn, a lake along the popular hiking trail Laugavegur). Up until the 20th century, people would catch swans for eating during the season when they drop their feathers and can’t fly. The skins and feathers were sold and the feathers were used for writing. Not all feathers came from birds that had been caught, as they could also be picked in the grounds where the swans dropped their feathers. They have been protected since 1914, the same year as the white-tailed eagle received protected status. Iceland now counts around 30,000 birds, with 3-4000 breeding couples.

Icelandic whooper swans tend to summer mostly in England and Ireland, some in Scandinavia or mainland Europe, but around a tenth of them brave out the winter here in Iceland. Many swans and other waterfowl can be found around lake Mývatn in North Iceland.

Swans can often be found in and around the Reykjavík City Pond in the city centre. The entire birdlife of the pond was protected in 1919 but up until then, people would go there for hunting. In 1920, swans were brought to the pond to liven up the area. They would lay eggs there, but today, the swans on the pond are mostly non-breeding adults.

Despite their reputation as a wasteland, many parts of the highlands are buzzing with life during the summer and make a great place for water birds to breed and have their young before returning to warmer regions.

Whooper swan swimming on Reykjavík city pond
Ian Funk

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