When the tale begins, a mother duck's eggs hatch. One of the little birds is perceived by the other birds and animals on the farm as a homely little creature and suffers much verbal and physical abuse from them. He wanders sadly from the barnyard and lives with wild ducks and geese until hunters slaughter the flocks. He finds a home with an old woman but her cat and hen tease him mercilessly and again he sets off on his own. He sees a flock of migrating wild swans; he is delighted and excited but he cannot join them for he is too young and cannot fly. Winter arrives. A farmer finds and carries the freezing little bird home, but the foundling is frightened by the farmer’s noisy children and flees the house. He spends a miserable winter alone in the outdoors, mostly hiding in a cave on the lake that partly freezes over. When spring arrives a flock of swans descends on the now thawing lake. The ugly duckling, now having fully grown and matured, unable to endure a life of solitude and hardship any more and decides to throw himself at the flock of swans deciding that it is better to be killed by such beautiful birds than to live a life of ugliness and misery. He is shocked when the swans welcome and accept him, only to realize by looking at his reflection in the water that he has grown into one of them. The flock takes to the air and the ugly duckling spreads his beautiful large wings and takes flight with the rest of his new family.