1902 Encyclopedia > Swan


SWAN (A-S. Swan and Swon, Icel. Svanr, Dutch Zwaan, Germ., Schwan), a large swimming-bird, well known from being kept in a half-domesticated condition throughout many parts of Europe, whence it has been carried to other countries. In England it was far more abundant formerly than at present, the young, or Cygnets, being highly esteemed for the table , and it was under especial enactments for its preservation, and regarded as a "Bird Royal" that no subject could possess without license from the crown, the granting of which license was accompanied by the condition that every bird in a "game" (to use the old legal term) of Swans should bear a distinguishing mark of ownership (cygninota) on the bill. Originally this privilege was conferred on the larger freeholders only, but it was gradually extended, so that in the reign of Elizabeth upwards of 900 distinct Swan-marks, being those of private persons or corporations, were recognized by the royal Swanherd, whose jurisdiction extended over the whole kingdom. It is impossible here to enter into further details on this subject, interesting as it is from various points of view. It is enough to remark that all the legal protection afforded to the Swan points out that it was not indigenous to the British Islands, and indeed it is stated (though on uncertain authority) to have been introduced to England in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion; but it is now so perfectly naturalized that birds having the full power of flight remain in the country. There is no evidence to shew that its numbers are ever increased by immigration from abroad, though it is known to breed as a wild bird not further from our shores than the extreme south of Sweden and possibly in Denmark, whence it may be traced, but with considerable vacuities, in a south-easterly direction to the valley of the Danube and the western part of Central Asia. In Europe, however, no definite limits can be assigned for its natural range, since birds more or less reclaimed and at liberty consort with those that are truly wild, and either induce them to settle in localities beyond its boundary, or of themselves occupy such localities, so that no difference is observable between them and their untamed brethen. From its breeding grounds, whether they be in Turkestan, in south-eastern Europe, or Scania, the Swan migrates southward towards winter, and at that season may be found in north-western India (though rarely), in Egypt, and on the shores of the Mediterranean.

The Swan just spoken of is by some naturalists named the Mute or Tame Swan, to distinguish it from one to be presently mentioned, but it is the Swan simply of the English language and literature. Scientifically it is usually known as Cygnus olor or C. mansuetus. It needs little description: its large size, spotless white plumage, its red bill, surmounted by a black knob (technically the "bery") larger in the male than in the female, its black legs and stately appearance on the water are familiar, either from figures innumerable or from direct observation, to almost every one. When left to itself its nest is a large mass of aquatic plants, often piled to the height of a couple of feet and possibly some six feet in diameter. In the midst of this is a hollow which contains the eggs, generally from five to nine in number, of a grayish-olive color. The period of incubation is between five and six weeks, and the young when hatched are clothed in sooty-grey down, which is succeeded by feathers of dark sooty-brown. This suit is gradually replaced by white, but the young birds are more than a twelvemonth old before they lose all trace of coloring and become wholly white.

It was however, noticed by Plot (N.H. Staffordshire, p. 228) 200 years and more ago that certain Swans on the Trent had white Cygnets; and it was subsequently observed of such birds that both prents and progeny had legs of a paler color, while the young had not the "blue bill" of ordinary Swans at the same age that has in some parts of the country given them a name, besides offering a few other minor differences. These being examined by Yarrell led him to announce (Proc. Zool. Society, 1838, p. 19) the birds presenting them as forming a distinct species, C. immutabilis, to which the English name of "Polish’ Swan had already been attached by the Ondon poulterers. There is no question so far as to the facts; the doubt exists as to their bearing in regard to the validity of the so-called "species." Though apparently wild birds, answering fairly to the description, occasionally occur in hard winters in Britain and some parts of the European Continent, their mother country has not yet been ascertained, - for the epithet "Polish" is but fanciful, - and most of the information respecting them is derived only from reclaimed examples, which are by no means common. Those examined by Yarrel are said to have been distinctly smaller than common Swans, but those recognized of later years are as distinctly larger. The matter requires much more investigation, and it may be remarked that occasionally Swans, so far as is known of the ordinary stock, will produce one or more Cygnets differing from the rest of the brood exactly in the characters which have been assigned to the so-called Polish Swans as specific-namely, their white plumage slightly tinged with buff, their pale legs, and flesh-colored bill. It may be that here we have a case of far greater interest than the mere question of specific distinction, in some degree analogous, but yet in an opposite direction, to that of the so-called Pavo nigrienns before mentioned (PEACOCK, vol. xviii. p. 443).

Thus much having been said of the bird which is nowadays commonly called Swan, and of its allied form, we must turn to other species, and first to one that anciently have been the exclusive bearer in England of the name. This is the Whooper, Whistling, or Wild Swan of modern usage, the Cygnus musicus or C. ferus of most authors, which was doubtless always a winter-visitant to this country, and, though nearly as bulky and quite as purely white in its adult plumage, is at once recognizable from the species which has been half domesticated by its wholly different but equally graceful carriage, and its bill-which is black at the tip and lemon-yellow for a great part of its base. This entirely distinct species is a native of Iceland, eastern Lapland, and northern Russia, whence it wanders southward in autumn, and the musical tones it utters (contrasting with the silence that has caused its relative to be often called the Mute Swan) have been celebrated from the time of Homer to our own. Otherwise in a general way there is little difference between the habits of the two, and very closely allied to the Whooper is a much smaller species, with very well marked characteristics, known as Bewick’s Swan, C. bewicki. This was first indicated as a variety of the last by Pallas, but its specific validity is now fully established. Apart from size, it may be eternally distinguished from the Whooper by the bill having only a small patch of yellow, which inclines to an orange rather than a lemon tint; while internally the difference of the vocal organs is well marked, and its cry, though melodious enough, is unlike. It has a more easterly home in the north than the Whooper, but in winter not unfrequently occurs in Britain.

Both he species last mentioned have their representatives in North America, and in each case the trans-Atlantic bird is considerably larger than that of the Old World. The first is the Trumpeter-Swan, C. buccinator, which has the bill wholly black, and the second the C. columbianus or americanus -- greatly resembling Bewick’s Swan, but with the colored patches on the bill of less extent and deepening almost into scarlet. South America produces two very distinct birds commonly regarded as Swans, - the Black-necked Swan and that which is called Cascaroba or Coscaroba. This last, which inhabits the southern extremity of the continent to Chili and the Argentine territory, and visits the Falkland islands, is the smallest species known, - pure white in color except the tip of its primaries, but having a red bill and red feet. The former, C. melanocorypha ornigricollis, if not discovered by earlier navigator, was observed by Narbrough 2d August 1670 in the Strait of Magellan, as announced in 1694 in the first edition of his Voyage (p. 52). It was subsequently found on the Falkland Islands during the French settlement there in 1764-65, as stated by Pernetty (Voyage, ed. 2, ii. pp. 26,99), and was first technically described in 1782 by Molina (Saggio sulla Stor. Nat. del Chile, pp. 234, 344). Its range seems to be much the same as that of the Cascaroba, except that it comes further to the northward, to the coast of southern Brazil on the east, and perhaps into Bolivia on the west. It is a very handsome bird, of large size, with a bright red nasal knob, a black neck, and the rest of its plumage pure white. It has been introduced into Europe, and breeds freely in confinement.

A greater interest than attaches to the South-American birds last mentioned is that which invests the Black Swan of Australia considered for so many centuries to be an impossibility, the knowledge of its existence seems to have impressed (more perhaps than anything else) the popular mind with the notion of the extreme divergence -- not to say the contrariety -- of the organic products of that country. By a singular stroke of fortune we are able to name the precise day on which this unexpected discovery was made. The Dutch navigator Willende Vlaming, visiting the west coast of Zuidland (Southland), sent two of his boats on the 6th of January 1697 to explore an estuary he had found. There their crews saw at first two and then more Black Swans, of which they caught four, taking two of them alive to Batavia; and Valentyn, who several years later recounted this voyage, gives in his work a plate representing the ship, boats, and birds, at the mouth of what is now known from this circumstance as Swan River, the most important stream of the thriving colony of West Australia, which has adopted this very bird as its armorial symbol. Valentyn, however, was not the first to publish this interesting discovery. News of it soon reached Amsterdam, and the burgomaster of that city, Witsen by name, himself a fellow of the Royal Society, lost no time in communicating the chief facts ascertained, and among them the finding of the Black Swans, to Martin Lister, by whom they were laid before that society in October 1698, and printed in its Philosophical Transactions (xx. P. 361). Subsequent voyagers, Cook and others, found that the range of the species extended over the greater part of Australia, in many districts of which it was abundant. It has since rapidly decreased in numbers, and will most likely soon cease to exist as a wild bird, but its singular and ornamental appearance will probably preserve it as a modified captive in most civilized countries, and perhaps even now there are more Black Swans in a reclaimed condition in other lands than are at large in their mother-country. The specie scarcely needs description: the sooty black of its general plumage is relieved by the snowy white of its flight-feathers and its coral-like bill banded with ivory.

The Cygninae admittedly form a well-defined group of the Family Anatidae, and there is now no doubt as to its limits, except in the case of the Cascaroba above mentioned. This bird would seem to be, as is so often found in members of the South-American fauna, a more generalized form, presenting several characteristics of the Anatinae, while the rest, even its Black-necked compatriot and the almost wholly Black Swan of Australia, have a higher morphological rank. Excluding from consideration the little-known C. davidi, of the five or six species of the Northern hemisphere four present the curious character, somewhat analogous to that found in certain CRANES (vol. vi. p. 546), of the penetration of the sternum by the trachea nearly to the posterior end of the keel, whence it returns forward and upward again to revert and enter the lungs; but in the two larger of these species, when adult, the loop of the trachea between the walls of the keel takes a vertical direction, while in the two smaller the bend is horizontal, thus affording an easy mode of recognizing the respective species of each. Fossil remains of more than one species of Swan have been found. The most remarkable is C. falconeri, which was nearly a third larger than the Mute Swan, and was described from a Maltese cave by Prof. Parker in the Zoological Transactions (vi. Pp. 119-124, PL. 30). ( A.N.)

The above article was written by: Alfred Newton, M.A., F.R.S.; Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University of Cambridge; late Chairman of Brit. Assoc. Migration of Birds Committee; President of the Cambridge Philosophical Society; author of Ornithology of Iceland and A Dictionary of Birds; edited The Ibis, 1865-70 and The Zoological Record, 1870-72.

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