Monday, 19 July 2010

Upping your knowledge about swans

My brother's second favourite joke is to list five facts about swans:

1. They all belong to The Queen
2. They mate for life
3. They can break your arm with a single blow from their wing
4. They only make noise when they're dying
5. There are only five facts about swans.

Hilarious. My love of swans extends to having one tattooed on my back, and I'd like to set the record straight, because none of these facts are true.

Under Royal Prerogative, the Monarch owns all wild mute swans living in open water - not all swans, just the ones you would immediately think of if someone asked you to picture a swan. Curved neck with a black knob atop.



Realistically, the Queen only exercises her ownership rights on some stretches of the Thames and its tributaries; Bewick's and Whooper swans are exempt; as are any marked by the Vintners' and Dyers' Livery Companies, which were granted their rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.

The marking of swans along the Thames is carried out every July, in a week-long census called the Swan Upping. This year, the census starts today.

As romantic a notion it is, swans don't mate for life. A mating pair are monogamous, form a strong bond, and work together to rear their cygnets, but pairs do sometimes "divorce", and if one of the pair dies, the other will sometimes find a new mate after a period of grieving.



The myth of the dying swan has inspired art: the poem, and in turn, the ballet. As for making no noise, well, Whooper swans are named after their loud, honking call. Likewise, mute swans earned their moniker with their silence. But you will hear a mute swan coming from the vibrant throbbing of its wings in flight, and prepare for plenty of hissing, snorting and grunting if you get too close to one of its babies.



Swans are fiercely protective of their young. They will act aggressively if their family of cygnets is threatened. But they can't break your arm with their wing. Birds can fly because their bones are full of hollows, making them very light. Human bones are much more dense, so unless you're suffering from osteoporosis (which results in bones having a honeycomb structure similar to that of a bird's) a swan is much more likely to break its wing with your arm, rather than the other way round.

The fifth fact about swans is that there are five true facts and more to read at the British Waterways' website, Waterscape.



All photos from my recent visit to Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, the largest colony of swans in the UK and the only place where I can be persuaded to spend two hours outdoors on a very hot summer's day.

Friday, 9 July 2010

RIP Alfred Russel Wallace

I bear a passing resemblance to a vampire. Pale, dark hair, shuns the Sun. So on a very hot July day in my Dorset hometown, (super)naturally, I went to a visit a dead man in a graveyard.

Alfred Russel Wallace died in Broadstone in 1913 and was buried in the local cemetery. His contribution to science is, in my opinion, under-recognised and undervalued. He devised the same theory of evolution as Charles Darwin and the letters sent by Wallace explaining this to him spurred the older man to publish his long-ruminated account, On The Origin of Species, in 1859.

Darwin's book followed a presentation on July 1st 1858 of both accounts of the theory of evolution by natural selection to the Linnaen Society, and although a letter accompanying the papers indicated Darwin's priority, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker stated, "both men deserve ample recognition."

Where is this recognition today? Darwin's face graces the English £10 note. He is interred in Westminster Abbey. Yet this monument to Wallace at his burial site was erected only in 2000 by the A. R. Wallace Memorial Fund. Well, I've written an essay on the topic, but suffice to say, Wallace's divergent views, his conversion to spiritualism and his anti-vaccinationist stance made him unpopular in his later years.

Broadstone remembers Darwin. My parents nearly bought a house on this road - metres from where Wallace, the "grand old man of science", spent his last days. Rest in peace Alfred, and know that although spirits don't exist, vampires are visiting your grave.