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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.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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