The Queen Owns The Swans (And Other Swan Stories)

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, at least when it comes to the British monarchy: In addition to being the reigning queen of 16 Commonwealth realms and the Paramount Chief of Fiji, engaging in regular consultation with whichever Prime Minister is in power at the time, and dealing with the odd scandal stirred up by an errant royal relative, the Queen is also the owner and caretaker of Britain's swans.

Even though she doesn't exactly have to take care of them herself "“ swans, those ill-tempered behemoths of the bird world, largely take care of themselves, subsisting on tossed bread and plastic bags, and plus, she's got people who do that sort of thing "“ the Queen does own the swans. And about two weeks ago, Queen Elizabeth II became the first known monarch to take part in what's called the Swan Upping, the annual counting of her royal brood of swans and a tradition that goes back more than nine centuries.

In (belated) honor of that momentous occasion, we've put together a post on the strangeness of being a royal bird:

About Swans

romeo-julietSo, swans are part of the same fowl family as geese and ducks; there are about six species in the swan genus, including the mute swan, North America's trumpeter swan, and the whooper swan. Boys are cobs, girls are pens, and the young are called cygnets; swans also, famously, mate for life, although they can break up. There is also evidence that swans will also form long-lasting same sex pairs: Animal behaviorists estimate that a quarter of Australian black swan families are parented by "homosexual" couples, with a male swan sometimes mating with female, then chasing her away once the eggs have hatched. Romeo and Juliet, the famous swan couple in Boston's Public Garden (pictured), are both female.

There are a number of names for a group of swans: a bevy, a bank, a team, a brood, a flock, a game, and, covering a few of the senses in a poetic sort of a way, a sownding, a whiting, or a lamentation.

Seriously, does the Queen actually own the swans?

Why, yes she does. The first documented mention of the royal swan prerogative was in 1186, however, there is some evidence to suggest that the bird was royal property even before then. In 1482, that status was legally defined by the Act of Swans, and anyone who was not the king or given permission caught with a swan could face imprisonment. Royal ownership of the swans was primarily derived from the belief that swans, especially cygnets and young swans, were tasty.

But the Crowned Head of Britain doesn't own all of the swans "“ over time, individual kings and queens have given away rights to swans as a way to show favor to allies. Currently, there are three other entities who have a right to the swans: The Dyers' livery company (an historic guild of dyers), the Vintners' livery company (an historic guild of wine merchants), and the Ilchester family. Each of these at one point marked their swans by notching, or carving marks into the birds' beaks.

The Queen can also give away her own swans to whomever she sees fit; in 1967, she presented six swans to the Canadian city of Ottawa to celebrate its 100th birthday and Canada's ties to England. In 2007, however, the city faced budget cuts which forced the city council to think about "regifting" the many descendants of those original swans, rather than build them a $500,000 (Canadian) new home to replace the crumbling old swan house (which animal rights activists were cleverly calling "Swantanamo Bay").

At various points in British legal history, would-be swan hunters have challenged the Crown's royal right to swans and, with a few notable exceptions, the law has sided with the monarchy. In 1910, a lawyer from the Orkney Isles decided to test the Crown's ownership of the swans by going out in to Harray Loch and shooting one. The case went to the High Court, where it was decided against the Crown, owing to the fact that the Orkney Isles are still governed by some holdovers from old Norse Udal law, under which the swans belong to the people.

Swan Master!

There is an actual person who bears the title "Swan Master" or perhaps more properly but far less fun, the swan warden. Back in the day "“ and not even that far back in the day, most likely even into the 20th century "“ his job would have been to round up the most promising of the cygnets for a good fattening up before the banquet table. Nowadays, however, the swan master's primary job is to maintain the health and safety of the Queen's swans and to count them every year in a tradition called Swan Upping.

dl5During the Upping, as they've done for roughly 900 years, men row boats up and down the Thames, stopping to mark, check and count the birds, and enjoying long lunches with much ale at riverside pubs. This year, the Queen "“ in a lovely peach hat topped with a feather (not a swan feather, mind you), and matching peach suit "“ followed the rowboats on a steam barge and was introduced to much of the arcane trivia around the birds.

In the 1980s, petrochemicals, lead fishing weights and other pollution contributed to the declining populations of swans on the Thames; now, however, the swan population has rebounded significantly and each year, Swan Uppers count around 1000 birds. These join the some 43,000 birds that winter in Britain each year.

Meat parfait and other tasty swan dishes

Royals initially kept swans for food, though the birds tended to be reserved for banquets and feasts. Reports on the flavor of swan vary greatly, from being tough, chewy and fishy, to being a bit like goose-flavored venison "“ some people, like famous 15th century diarist Samuel Pepys, evidently was a fan, while others not so much. (And, as an aside, according to an 1877 New York Times article on cooking and eating swans, poets and writers have got it wrong: Mute swans, when dying, do not sing.)

During Elizabeth I's reign, swan was a popular feast dish, especially when it was stuffed with the carcasses of nine other birds "“ this is turducken on a very grand scale. According to historians, the swan roast contained, in nesting doll descending order, a goose, a duck, a mallard, a chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon and a woodcock, and could feed 30 people. For a most ostentatious presentation, the swan would be skinned, and the skin, with feathers still attached, would be set aside. The swan would then be packed with the other birds and stuffing and cooked, before being redressed in its feathery coat and served.

12turkeys

Inspired by the Tudor and Elizabethan recipes, a British chef recently made her own fowl parfait, stuffing a massive turkey with 48 other birds of 12 different species. This hot bird-on-bird action contains 50,000 calories, takes more than eight hours to cook and serves 125 people.

Though it's generally fallen out of favor and tends to be illegal for many, people still, on some very rare occasions, eat swans. But before you try, note that in England at least, you could very well be arrested: Back in the day, the offense was called "swanage," the killing and eating of swans by unauthorized persons; now, since wild swans are also protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which prohibits the intentional killing or harming of the animals, it's just called a felony.

Every once in awhile, people run into trouble with swans. After finding the carcass of a whooping swan that had died after getting caught in some power lines, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer to the Queen, decided to cook it up and eat it. He was caught by officers who spotted part of the swan's body hanging in his garden and told that he could face charges (he didn't).

In 2003, a man in Llandudno, Wales, was sentenced to two months in prison after killing a mute swan. According to reports, the man was a Muslim on his last day of fasting for Ramadan and may have gone a bit hunger-mad. He saw the swan in a pond and either stabbed it or bit it through the neck; at the time he was caught, carrying the dead swan in a grocery bag, he had blood and feathers in his beard. When confronted in court with the fact that killing swans, especially swans belonging to the Queen is illegal, the man allegedly replied, "I hate the Queen, I hate this country."

Then there was a case of protest swan-eating: In 2007, a vegetarian artist ate a cooked swan to protest the royal ownership of the swans. Mark McGowan, a controversial artist who once nailed his feet to a gallery wall, faced death threats from animal rights groups before eating the swan, which had been found dead on a West Country farm. McGowan, perhaps contrary to his intent, was not arrested.

And finally, alleged swan-poaching: The Sun, that venerable old British tabloid, claimed in 2003 that police had arrested asylum seekers who were poaching and roasting swans. After several complaints about the authenticity "“ and indeed, the subtle racism "“ of the story, The Sun admitted that no such arrests had taken place, but maintained that the word on the street was that Eastern European refugees were snatching and eating the birds. These stories bear a striking resemblance to stories (read: urban legends) from other immigrant rich parts of the world, in which the bumpkin newcomers, seeing no reason not to, trap and eat ornamental birds like ducks and geese.

While you can't hunt swan in Britain, you can in the States, provided, of course you have the appropriate license. And if you're so inclined, you can also purchase swan meat, at around a $1000 per swan, from a dealer in the US at 1-800-steaks.com.

August 4, 2009 - 9:01am
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