Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 7, 2009

The Mute Shall Speak

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:18 pm

It’s time for me to turn over a new leaf.  You know, with the new year and all that I figure it would be a good time to suck it in and pay homage to things I generally dislike.  This being a nature column, I am referring to such things as  cats, deer, phragmites, and…cats. I have a grudging respect for deer, so they won’t be hard to do. Phragmites, those plume-top habitat stealing plant monsters will be harder, but they too have some merit somewhere. I’ll do something about cats maybe next year or never – whatever comes first. No, I’d rather start my penance with Mute Swans, if you don’t mind.

Normally, I would only refer to Mute Swans as swimming hogs, but I am reminded by my better nature that these swimming hogs are not responsible for their obnoxiousness. Like weeds, they are simply living things that are in a place where humans don’t want them. People brought them here and allowed them to freely multiply and flourish. Like weeds they are exceedingly adaptable and durable and therefore successful as New World colonists. Just because they destroy aquatic habitats and chase away native waterfowl is no reason to hate them at a deep personal level.  In fact, saying  a few positive things about Mute Swans will neither hurt nor help them, so why not let me try, eh?

Mute Swans are sleek looking creatures. You’ll get no argument from me on this point. With their black-knobbed orange bills, graceful curvatures, and large size they are easy to identify from a distance (see the grouping above and the feeding ones here). They won over the early Europeans with their ceramically proportioned  good looks. This is the primary reason they were domesticated some 1,000 years ago. Never functioning as food, they were treated more as ornaments. In the 12th century “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, the geese did all the laying and the seven swans just swam around and looked pretty.

These domesticated swans were considered to be the exclusive property of royalty. The peasants were allowed their cheap little hedgehogs and bargain-basement geese, but swans could only be possessed by people of means. Every swan was marked and pinioned. Swan marks, brand-like symbols inflicted on each bird, were carefully recorded in official books that recorded ownership.  Most of these marks were carved into the upper mandible of the beak to create a permanent scar, although some involved punching holes into the foot webbing or clipping certain nails. All the swans belonging to the Earl of Surry, for example, had a Maltese cross on their beak, while those claimed by the Duke of Suffolk bore a pair of parallel lines over the top of the beak. An annual “upping”, or round-up, was conducted to mutilate the new crop of cygnets. A “cygnet,” by the way, is the special name reserved for the reproductive product resulting from the union of a “cob,”or male, and a female called a  “pen.”

Although it would be tempting to continue on the mutilation theme, I’d like to veer back in a positive direction and briefly examine the alleged muteness of this species. You’d think Mute Swans, in honor of their name, would be silent creatures but they are not. They find many ways to make a noise unto the world. Their whistling wing beats, while technically not calls per se, are a loud and distinctive part of their repertoire (listen here). Mutes are also able to make vocal sounds as well. These nasal calls (listen here and here) are not pretty but they are legitimate sounds. Because Mute Swans do not possess the long convoluted trachea of their melodious cousins, the Trumpeter and Tundra swans, their calls are relatively quiet and simple.

The best way I can think of to describe these pitiful vocal efforts is to describe them as  painfully suppressed sneezes – the kind that royalty perform when in front of their public.  As you now know, this is a very fitting analogy.


  1. Why, I’ve written a song about how much I hate buckthorn, even though I can’t sing. I also dislike ducks, groundhogs, and dogs. But cats rule!

    Comment by Monica — January 8, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

  2. P.S. That should have been SOME dogs. I like others. If it doesn’t lick me, slobber on me, or sniff my personal regions, it’s OK!

    Comment by Monica — January 8, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

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