Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The swan

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“Dant sonitum rauci per stagna loquacia Cygni.”
Virg. Æneid.

alt = Swan sitting on eggs, with mate standing guard in the water
alt = Swan sitting on eggs, with mate standing guard in the water

Among the pleasing and amusing objects which are to be seen on the river Thames, the swans have always attracted my attention. The Thames is one of their favourite haunts. They rarely descend as low as the metropolis, and never, I believe, beyond it. Their chief delight is in more sequestered scenes. But wherever this bird appears, he is a great ornament to the river. Though his form is clumsy, especially on land, his lines are beautiful, and when he spreads his wings he is full of contrasts. His colour, too, is pleasing, or rather, the lights are in the softest manner blended with the shades. In fact, he is a very picturesque bird.

He appears to most advantage on the water, but not equally so. When he is bent on expedition, with his breast sunk deep into the water, his wings close to his body, and his neck erect, then his motion, as he drives the water before him, is pleasing. His form is the reverse, his neck and body being at right angles. As a loiterer, he makes the best appearance, when, with an arched neck, and wings raised from his sides, he rests upon his oars motionless on the surface, or moves slowly on with the stream,

Prono immobile corpus
Dat fluvio—

then indeed his form is very picturesque. Milton’s portrait of him in this advantageous attitude is touched in a very masterly manner:—

The swan, with arched neck
Between his white wings mantling, proudly rows
His state with oary feet.

When the breeding season comes on in the spring, the colony of swans is particularly amusing, as they are now full of employment and care. The females, dispersed on the little aits or islands of the river, are laying or hatching their eggs, while the male of each family is employed in keeping guard, which he does with great assiduity,

And, arching his proud neck, with oary feet
Bears forward fierce, and guards his osier isle,
Protective of his young.

With such courage is he actuated at these seasons, that if a boat should approach too near the nest he guards, it would probably be attacked. A swan on duty is a brave and careful sentinel.

The swan fights with his wing, and gives so violent a stroke with the pinion of it, that it has been known to break a man’s leg. By what power of nature a small engine, formed only of the muscles of a bird’s wing, can exert a force, which one should only expect from a steel spring, cannot easily, perhaps, be explained. We see the same powerful elasticity in other parts of nature, particularly in the thigh and heel of a gamecock. In the jaws of several animals, apparently of little force—in the beaks of several birds—or in the claw of a lobster—there is amazing strength; but it is a strength deliberately applied, and exerted always in a continued pressure. The stroke of a swan’s pinion, or of a cock’s heel, is something very different. It is exerted by a sort of mechanical trick, or operation, if I may so express myself. The animal exerts it with a spring, and only in the action of offence. Some power indeed one might expect from a swan’s wing, but the force of a cock’s heel is astonishing. These, however, and a variety of other things in Nature, we can admire only, but cannot explain.

Swans’ nests are made sometimes with short stakes and straw inserted by the fishermen in the river, who know their haunts. He whose nest a swan takes possession of, is entitled to receive of the City, whose property the swans are, the sum of five shillings. It is a curious fact, that if there is a sudden rise of the river after much rain, when the female swan is sitting on her eggs, the birds, as I have seen them do, raise their nest by means of flags, straw, and other materials, above the influence of the water, so that their eggs are preserved from being chilled.

The cygnet is grey the first year, and does not assume its beauty till the second, when it begins to breed. The swan lays three, four, five, and sometimes six eggs.

In the winter season they live in little flocks, though they are not generally gregarious—much less so than geese or ducks. At the same time they have their own particular districts or localities on the river, and any intruder is immediately chased from it.

In winter, should the Thames be covered with ice, the swan suffers greatly. He is deprived both of food and exercise. In these deplorable circumstances, some of the inhabitants on the river collect what number of swans they can, in different places, and feed them with corn in hovels, for which the City amply repays them. In these hovels, so different from their own bright element, they are far from being at their ease. Filth of every kind is disagreeable to them. The frost, however, does not continue long. The pens are opened, and they are again dismissed to their beloved haunts, where they soon clean themselves, and dress their feathers into their proper beauty.

Through the winter we may see swans often in company together: as the spring advances they are always in pairs. Should there be three or four together, you may be sure they are either cygnets or old swans become effete.

The swan is probably faithful to his mate, though perhaps only for a season. Most fowls, in a state of nature, are endowed with this constancy. In eagles, it has been particularly remarked. In the farm-yard we see nothing like it. Indeed, where few males are kept, and a number of females, constancy, if it existed in nature, could not be shown. All ties of constancy are broken of course. But it is probable that if domestic fowls were turned loose in woods, a particular attachment would take place. In doves of all kinds it is observed, even in those which are in a state of domestication. Among quadrupeds it may be doubted whether such fidelity ever takes place; at least I have never met with any instance of it, either among wild or domestic animals. Violence and strength generally settle all disputes of this kind.

In concluding this account of the swan, I may mention that in passing over the Windsor and Eton Bridge, a shaft of some length may be seen, which divides the river into two parts—the stream to the right turns the wheel of a mill which forces up water to Windsor Castle, and that to the left flows over a tumbling bay near the Eton playing fields, and both streams unite again a little below them. Now the shaft in question has, from time immemorial, been called the Cobler. I took some pains in order to ascertain the reason of the shaft being so called, but without any satisfactory reason being given. Passing over the bridge one moonlight night, I observed a number of swans roosting on it, and was afterwards told that it had always been a favourite place for the repose of those birds. It then struck me that I could give a reason why the shaft was called the Cobler. Cobb is an ancient name for the swan, and lair a roosting or resting place. Thus we have Cobb-lair, readily transferred into Cobler.

I should not omit to state that when swans fly just over the surface of the river against the wind, as they may sometimes be seen doing, the old fishermen prognosticate a change of weather. It is a pretty sight when the birds do this, and when they alight again on the water, shaking their wings and feathers. Milton must have alluded to the wild swans when he said,

They quit
The dank, and rising on stiff pinions, tower
The mid-aërial sky.

A flock of wild swans was lately seen in Ireland, pursued by two eagles. It must have been a noble and interesting sight.

Edward Jesse.