Nature Notes

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NICK HODGES

Like many Australians I have friends who live in this country and who are married to Britons, and British friends who are married to Australians and live in the UK. We get on well. The same seems to apply in the swan world.

The mute swan (a curious misnomer because it actually grunts) is the well-known white swan. Not that it’s really an Australian bird. It was introduced to parts of Western Australia in the 19th century including Northam, a small town north-east of Perth.  

The introductions were not successful and the bird is now almost impossible to find outside of Northam. But there white swans can still be found, where they live and breed, on the Avon River.  

The birds are more easily seen in Europe where they are native. If you visit Stratford, in England, the birthplace of Shakespeare and on the Avon River (in a curious coincidence sharing the same name with the river in Northam), you’ll see dozens of the birds: right next to the theatre complex of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Swans have always been seen as beautiful and are revered throughout the world. References abound in the arts. Wagnerian opera sees the hero, Lohengrin, arrive by a boat drawn by a swan; Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling grew into a swan. And then there’s the ballet, Swan Lake.  

But that’s the white swan.  What about our black swan?  It’s also a beautiful bird. With its delicate red and pinkish bill it’s possibly the more attractive of the two species.

Some of our black swans were gifted to a delighted Sir Winston Churchill at his home in southern England in the 1920s. Later, more birds were presented to Britain by the WA government and our Australian swans got a foothold in the UK.

Some of the British black swans must have escaped because I’ve occasionally seen them in the wild over there. Once a flock of swans flew past in perfect chevron flight. Four were white, the fifth was an Australian black swan. How’s that for British – Australian mateship?

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