Few animals possess the tranquil, sophisticated grace embodied by the swan. Their beauty and mystique is attested by the long tradition of art, music, poetry, and folklore they have inspired in cultures all over the world.
These qualities make them a kind of totem of the winter season, in particular – their snowy white plumage and regal poise evoke the radiant stillness of a freshly fallen snow, or the remote beauty of an icy northern shoreline.
That’s why I couldn’t think of a better time of year to do a post on this remarkable animal.
Right: Nature’s ballet dancers – or perhaps a budding ice skating star? (Whooper swans photographed by Stefano Unterthiner)
A few facts about swans
There are several species of swans common throughout the temperate regions, with the most common (and largest) being the trumpeter, the whooper, and of course the famed mute swan. The whooper swan is prevalent throughout Europe and Asia, as is the mute swan, which has become naturalized in the Americas. Of the three, trumpeter swans are the only variety native to North America. They were hunted aggressively by early white settlers and only recently have their populations rebounded after bordering extinction.
They can be easily distinguished by the differences of their bills. Whooper swans have orange, knobbed bills tipped with black; trumpeter swans have straight black bills; and mute swans have black-knobbed orange bills. Mute swans also have the signature curved necks, while those of whoopers and trumpeters are straight.
Other varieties include the smaller tundra swan who inhabits the cold waterways of the far north; the black-necked swan of South America; and the distinctive black swan, indigenous to Australia.
Swans figure prominently in the mythologies of the regions where they are prevalent, including the British Isles, Scandinavia, and northern Asia.
In Norse myth, swans descend from a pair of birds who drank from the sacred waters of Asgard, home of the gods, while in Finnish legend the Swan of Tuonela courses the underworld on the gloomy river of death. Today the whooper swan is the national bird of Finland. Swans are likewise sacred symbols in Greek and Hindu mythology.
In North America, they are common characters in the oral traditions of American Indians, most notably as the “earth-diver” portrayed in the Huron creation story.
- A male swan is called a cob, while a female is known as a pen. Swan young are called cygnets (not ugly ducklings).
- It is believed that the use of quills from the female swan gave rise to the modern name for our favorite writing tool – i.e., “pen quills,” or “pens” for short.
- Trumpeter swans are thought to be the world’s largest waterfowl, with wingspans reaching up to 10 feet.
- Contrary to popular myth, mute swans are not mute – in fact they produce a wide range of sounds.
- Along similar lines, the famous expression of the “swan’s song,” referring to a legend that swans never vocalize until they are about to die, is also a fallacy. But true to the spirit of the swan’s inimitable persona, even this myth was a source of inspiration, as reflected in Heine’s famous ballad:
And over the pond are sailing
Two swans all white as snow;
Sweet voices mysteriously wailing
Pierce through me as onward they go.
They sail along, and a ringing
Sweet melody rises on high;
And when the swans begin singing,
They presently must die.
Right: A favorite wallpaper from NatGeo. See also:
and a gallery of swan photography by Stefano Unterthiner