The Swan

You are no doubt well acquainted with this beautiful bird, and have

perhaps fed some of its species, by the ornamental waters of the parks.

Or perhaps, and that is far better, you have seen it sailing

majestically down the river Thames, free and unconfined, enjoying its

perfect liberty. The swan has been called a royal bird, being formerly

regarded as the exclusive property of the crown, and even now there are

but few exceptions to the rule. The royal swans, that is those belonging

to the Crown, are marked in a particular manner on the bill, and every

year, on the first Monday in August, men, now called swan-hoppers (a

corruption of the old term swan-uppers, because they went up the

river after the swans), proceed up the Thames to mark the young swans

hatched during the year. The Dyers' Company and the Vintners' Company

also own swans in the Thames, which were granted to them in olden times.

The Vintners' mark for their swans is a nick or notch on each side of

the beak, from which their swans have been called, merrily, "swans with

two necks" (nicks). Perhaps you have heard of an inn, which has a swan

with two necks as a sign; now you will understand how it came by so

strange a name.

The swan builds his nest of sticks near the river side, generally

amongst the reeds. If disturbed, the male bird assumes a very warlike

attitude, and will attack the intruder with great violence. The swan is

a strong, powerful bird, and I have heard of a boy whose arm was broken

by a blow from a swan's wing, because he ventured too near the nest. But

when not sitting, swans are harmless, gentle birds. They live to a great

age, feeding on coarse grass and water-weeds. Young swans are called

cygnets, and are at first quite grey or light brown; they do not become

perfectly white until the beginning of the third year. The swan is not a

native of our island, but comes originally from the East, and is, when

in a state of nature, migratory in its habits. One species of wild swan,

called the Hooper, or Whistling Swan, spends the winter in warm

climates, sometimes flying as far south as Africa, and returns in spring

to Iceland, Norway, Lapland, and Siberia. This bird is hunted eagerly by

the Icelanders for its soft white down. The season chosen is the

moulting time, when the poor birds, having lost their quill feathers,

are unable to fly away; and with trained dogs which catch them by the

neck, and little ponies which ride them down, the swans are taken in

great numbers.

The Black Swan is another variety, found in Australia. Formerly this

bird was considered very rare, but now it may be seen any day in one or

other of the parks. Swans are very particular in not allowing their

neighbours to intrude on their domains. If a strange swan comes to that

part of the river which has been already appropriated, he is instantly

pursued and compelled to return to his own family. Once two White Swans

attacked a poor Black Swan on the lake in the Regent's Park, and at last

drove him ashore so exhausted that he fell dead. The White Swans kept

sailing up and down to the spot where he fell, with every feather on

end, and apparently proud of their conquest. Swans are fond of their

young, and the mother will often carry her young ones to another part of

the river on her back. Cygnets are good to eat, and the corporation of

Norwich, who boast this treat at their public dinners, are bound, by

some old regulation, to present the Duke of Norfolk every year with an

immense cygnet pie.

The Wild Swan has a very loud call, and utters a melancholy cry when one

of the flock is killed. The Wild Swans of Hudson's Bay furnish the

finest quills used for writing. Swans and their eggs are still protected

by several statutes, and to steal the latter is felony.

I will copy for you an instance in which a swan once showed that

wonderful instinct with which all animals are gifted by God. "Whilst

sitting on her eggs, she was one day seen to be very busy, collecting

weeds, grasses, and other materials to raise her nest. A farming man was

ordered to take down half a load of haulm, with which she most

industriously elevated her nest and eggs two feet and a half. That very

night there came down a tremendous fall of rain, which flooded all the

malt-kilns, and did great damage. _Man_ made no preparation, the _bird_

did. Her eggs were above, and only just above, the water."

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