Dan Keel¿s book about this extraordinary bird tells us much about the swan¿s natural history and biology, as well as exploring its many historical and mythical associations, which are particularly rich in Britain

NATURE 

SWAN 

by  Dan Keel (Summersdale £9.99, 256pp)

The swan is one of the most powerful of all symbolic animals in the human imagination, rivalled only by the lion and the eagle.

Stunningly beautiful and elegant, an emblem of undying love, it’s also a ferocious fighter in defence of its young, and attacks any intruders in its territory.

The swan supremely represents that power of nature and the wild, which we civilised human beings find so alluring, enviable . . . and not a little frightening.

Dan Keel’s book about this extraordinary bird tells us much about the swan’s natural history and biology, as well as exploring its many historical and mythical associations, which are particularly rich in Britain.

Dan Keel’s book about this extraordinary bird tells us much about the swan’s natural history and biology, as well as exploring its many historical and mythical associations, which are particularly rich in Britain

We actually have three species of native swan, the mute, Bewick’s and the whooper swan, but the mute is the ‘classic’ variety.

One famous myth claims that although they are near silent for much of their lives, they do sing a beautiful song before they die — their ‘swan song’ — but this, alas, is just a myth. They can hiss pretty vigorously, though, when enraged.

In trying to establish whether the Queen really owns them all, Keel goes off to meet Her Majesty’s Swan Warden — yes he still exists, and he’s currently Professor Chris Perrins of Oxford University. Formerly called the Swan Master, he used to be in charge of preventing peasants from stealing the cygnets, but today he’s more of an ornithologist, on hand with useful advice about conservation.

Swans eat an impressive 3 kg of water weeds a day, a quarter of their bodyweight. And although they are indeed devoted lovers, famous for their beautiful display of balletic courtship that can go on for hours, the actual act itself can last a rather brisk ‘three to five seconds’.

They will also have their ferocious fights with any other swans that trespass into their territory, after which the victor will return proudly to his mate and celebrate ‘with a series of loud snorts while gently rubbing breasts and necks

The comic novelist David Lodge once observed that novels are mostly about having sex and not much about having children, while real life is the exact opposite. Swans would agree with this, I think.

After a few of these three-to-five second bouts, they spend the rest of the summer anxiously incubating and guarding their eggs against all-comers, and then their small, fluffy cygnets.

These can be eaten by a vast range of predators, says Keel, including: ‘Foxes, crows, magpies, jays, jackdaws, squirrels, badgers, owls, gulls, herons, snakes, mink and pike.’ No wonder the parents can be so instantly aggressive in defence of their young. They have to be.

They will also have their ferocious fights with any other swans that trespass into their territory, after which the victor will return proudly to his mate and celebrate ‘with a series of loud snorts while gently rubbing breasts and necks. They then rise up from the water and flap their wings in a display of power’.

A bit of quick maths convinces the author that swans can’t actually break your arm with a blow from their wing. But don’t be too complacent. Hard to believe though it is, a grown man, Anthony Hensley, was kayaking on a pond in Chicago when a swan attacked him, and actually held his head down underwater until he drowned. It’s by pinning you down and drowning that the swan is more likely to kill, as happened to a poor cocker spaniel in Dublin’s Bushy Park in 2019.

The royal connection with swans goes back to a law of 1482, when Edward IV declared all swans Crown property or of the wealthiest landowners. Today, unmarked swans still belong to the Monarch

And are they really monogamous for life? Well, no — but they’re pretty good all the same, showing monogamy rates of around 85 per cent. Studies on humans, meanwhile, says the author, suggest rates of 65 per cent for women and 40 per cent for men.

The royal connection with swans goes back to a law of 1482, when Edward IV declared all swans Crown property or of the wealthiest landowners. Today, unmarked swans still belong to the Monarch.

However, there are also specially marked swans on the Thames belonging to the ancient Vintners and Dyers Companies in the City, who go out once a year for a spot of swan upping — ceremoniously marking their swans. All very English, somehow.

Swan was still eaten until surprisingly recently, served in 1974 by the Vintners. They have since abandoned the practice however, noting on their website that ‘the muscly legs and wings are very tough meat’.

There are still some 74,000 swans in and around the British Isles, which seems quite a healthy number, if not as many as in the past; and our relationship with them remains as rich and complex as ever. ‘We have simultaneously glorified and hunted, revered and destroyed . . . watched them in awe, but turned them into meals, toys and hats.’

Today, according to a National Trust survey cited here, only half of all children in the UK can differentiate between a bee and wasp, but nine out of ten can identify a Dalek. More education is surely needed if future generations are to continue to preserve and wonder at these most magnificent examples of our native wildlife.

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By Jon Doe