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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter IV. The Swans of America

“Very well, then" said Lucien, agreeing to the request. “I shall tell you all I know of the swans; and, indeed, that is not much, as the natural history of these birds in their wild state is but little understood. On account of their shy habits, there is not much opportunity of observing them; and as they annually migrate and breed in those desolate regions within the Arctic circle, where civilized men do not live, but little information has been collected about them. Some of the species, however, breed in the temperate zones, and the habits of these are better known.

“For a long time it was fancied there was but one species of swan. It is now known that there are several, distinguished from each other in form, colour, voice, and habits. "White as a swan" is a simile as old, perhaps; as language itself. This, I fancy, would sound strangely to the ears of a native Australian, who is accustomed to look upon swans as being of the very opposite colour, for the black swan is a native of that country.

According to the naturalist Brehm, who has given much attention to this subject, there are four distinct species of swans in Europe. They are all white, though some of the species have a reddish orange tinge about the head and neck. Two of them are £ gibbous/ that is, with a knob or protuberance upon the upper part of the bill. One of these Brelun terms the 'white-headed gibbous swan’ (Cygnus gibbus). The other is the 'yellowheaded' and this last also is known as the mute or tame swan, because it is that species most commonly seen in a tame state upon the ornamental lakes and ponds of England. The other two European species Brehm has designated 'singing swans' as both of them utter a note that may be heard to a considerable distance.

"The black swan of Australia (C. niger) has been naturalized in Europe, and breeds freely in England, where, from its great size and peculiar markings, it is one of the most ornamental of water-fowls. It is, moreover, a great tyrant, and will not permit other birds to approach its haunt, but drives them off, striking them furiously with its strong broad wings.

“Until a late period the swans of America were supposed to be all of one kind. This is not the case. There are now known to be three distinct species inhabiting the fur countries, and migrating annually to the South. That which is best known is the ‘whistler,’ or ‘hooper’ (C. Americaniis), because it is the species that abounds in the old States upon the Atlantic, and was therefore more observed by naturalists. It is believed to be identical with one of the European ‘singing’ swans (C. ferus), but this is not certain; and for my part, I believe they are different, as the eggs of the American swan are greenish, while those of its European congener are brownish, with white blotches.

“The 'hooper’ is four and a half feet in length, though there are males still larger, some of them measuring five feet. Its colour is white, except upon the head and back part of the neck, where there is a coppery tinge. The bill and feet are black. From the angle of the mouth to the eye there is a small naked 6 cere/ of a bright yellow colour. These swans, like others of the genus, do not care much for the salt water. They are rarely seen upon the sea, except near its shores, where they may find the aquatic plants upon which they feed. Nor do they go out upon the large lakes. When found upon these, it is generally close in to the land. This is accounted for by the fact that the swans do not dive for their food, but stretch down for it with their long necks, which Nature has peculiarly adapted to this very purpose. Their favourite food consists of the roots of aquatic plants,, which are often farinaceous. As these grow best in the shallow small lakes and along the margins of rivers, such places are the usual resort of the swans. Although their diet is a vegetable one, it is not exclusively so, as they will eat frogs, worms, and small fish. Unlike the ducks and geese, they rarely feed upon land, but while floating upon the surface of the water. They walk but awkwardly on land, and are at home only on water or in the air. In the air they are quite at home, and fly so swiftly that it is no easy matter to shoot them, especially when going before the wind. At such times they are supposed to fly at the rate of one hundred miles an hour. When moulting, and unable to rise into the air, it is no easy matter to follow them even with a canoe. By means of their broad feet and strong wings, they can flutter so quickly over the water, now and then diving, that the hunter cannot overtake them in his boat, but is obliged to use his gun in the pursuit.

“The hoopers are migratory,—that is, they pass to the north every spring, and southward again in the autumn. Why they make these annual migrations, remains one of the mysteries of nature. Some believe they migrate to the north, because they there find those desolate uninhabited regions where they can bring forth their young in security. But this explanation cannot be the true one, as there are also uninhabited regions in the south, even under the equator, where they may be equally free from the presence of man. Another explanation might be offered. In hot and tropical countries most of the small lakes and swamps, where these birds love to dwell, dry up during the summer months: hence the necessity of a migration to colder and moister regions. But this would only hold good of the wading and water birds; it would not account for the migration of the many other birds of passage.

“A better explanation may be this: The north and the cold zones are the natural habitat of most migratory birds. It is there that they bring forth their young, and there they are at home. In tropical regions they are only sojourners for a season, forced thither, some of them, by a cold which they do not relish; but others, such as the water fowl, by the frost, which, binding up the lakes, rivers, and swamps, hinders them from procuring their food. They are thus compelled to make an annual migration to the open waters of the South, but as soon as the ice has given way before the genial breath of spring, they all return rejoicing to their favourite home in the North, when their season of love commences.

“The 'hoopers' follow this general law, and migrate to the northward every spring. They breed upon islets in the numerous lakes that stud the whole northern part of the American continent. Eminences in swamps are also chosen for breeding places, and the ends of promontories that jut out into the water. The spot selected is always such that the swan, when seated upon her nest, can have a view of the surrounding country, and detect any enemy long before it can approach her. The top of the dome-shaped dwellings of the musk-rat, or musquash (Fiber zibetkicus), is often selected by the swan for her nest. These curious little houses are usually in the midst of impenetrable swamps: they are only occupied by their builders during the winter; and as they are deserted by them in early spidng, they are therefore quite at the service of the swan for the balance of the season. The bird makes a large cavity in the top, and lines it with such reeds and grass as may be found near the spot.

“The hooper lays from six to eight eggs, and sits upon them for a period of six weeks, when the cygnets come forth covered with a thick down of a bluish-grey colour. While sitting upon her eggs, the swan is exceedingly watchful and shy. She ‘faces’ towards the point whence she most apprehends danger. When the weather is severe, and the wind cold and keen, she changes into that position which is most comfortable. If her nest be upon a promontory instead of an island, she usually sits with her head to the land, as she feels secure that no enemy will reach her from the waterside. From the land she has not only man to ‘look out’ for, but the wolverene (Gulo luscus), the lynx (Felis Canadensis), foxes, and wolves.

“The Indians often snare the swan upon her nest. Of course the snare — a running noose made from the intestines of the deer—is set in her absence. It is placed upon the side by which she enters, as these birds enter and leave the nest upon opposite sides. The snare must be arranged with great care, and with clean hands; and the Indians always take the precaution to wash their hands before setting it, else the swans, whose sense of smell is very acute, will perceive the presence of danger, and will not only keep away for a time, but sometimes desert the eggs altogether. There are many other birds that have a similar habit.

“So much for the ‘hooper,’” continued Lucien; “now for the ‘trumpeter.' This is the largest of the American swans, being found to measure seventy inches in length. Its specific name ‘trumpeter’ (C. buccinator) is given to it on account of its note, which resembles the sound of a French horn, or trumpet, played at a distance. The bird is white, with black bill and feet, and has also a reddish orange or copper tinge upon the1 crown and neck; but it wants the yellow spot between the split of the mandibles and the eye. It is easily distinguished from the hooper, both by its louder note and larger body. Its habits, however, are very similar, except that it seems to be more gregarious,—small flocks of six or eight often appearing together, while the hooper is seen only in pairs, and sometimes solitary. Another distinction is, that the trumpeter arrives much earlier in its migrations to the North, being the earliest bird that appears except the eagles. It breeds as far South as latitude 61°, but most generally within the Arctic circle. Its nest is constructed similarly to those of the hooper, but its. eggs are much larger, one of them being a meal for a moderate eater, without bread or any other addition. The trumpeter frequently arrives in the North before the lakes or rivers are thawed. It is then obliged to find sustenance at the rapids and waterfalls, where the Indians can approach under cover, and many are shot at such times by these people. At all other times, as you, Francis, have observed, it is a bird most difficult of approach; and the Indian hunters only attempt it when they have a long-range gun loaded with ball.

"The third species of American swans is that known as Bewick’s swan (C. Bewickii) called after the naturalist of that name. It is the smallest of the three, rarely measuring over fifty-two inches in length,' and weighing only fourteen pounds, while the hooper is over twenty pounds in weight, and the trumpeter is often obtained of the enormous weight of thirty:

“Bewick’s swan is also said to be identical with one of Brehm’s singing swans. Its colour is almost similar to that of the hooper, and the two are often mistaken for each other. The size and the tail-feathers of all three of the American swans form a sufficiently specific distinction. In the trumpeter these are twenty-four in number, in the hooper twenty, while the small species has only eighteen.

“Of the three, the last-mentioned is the latest on its annual journey, but it breeds farther North than either of the others. Its nest is found upon the islands of the Arctic Sea; it is usually built of peatmoss, and is of gigantic dimensions, being six feet long by five in width, and nearly two feet high. In the top of this pile is the nest itself, forming a large round cavity nearly two feet in diameter. The eggs are of a brownish white, with clouds of darker tint.

“I have remarked,” continued Lucien, “a singularity in the geographical distribution of these three species. Upon the Pacific coast the smallest kind and the hooper only are met with, and the small ones outnumber the others in the ratio of five to one. In the interior parts of the continent only the hoopers and trumpeters appear; and the trumpeters are by far the most numerous, while upon the eastern coasts of America the hoopers are the sort best known.

“The swans are eagerly hunted both by the Indians and white hunters. Their skins, with the quills and down, form a source of profit to the natives of the fur countries, who dispose of them to the Hudson’s Bay Company. In some years as many as ten thousand skins have been exported, and sold at the rate of six or seven shillings each. Most of the skins thus sold were those of the trumpeter swans, which are the most numerous.

“Now,” said Lucien, in conclusion, “you know as much about the swans as I do; so I shall drop the subject, and recommend to all of you a piece of roast swan, which is now just done to a turn, and which  I doubt not will be found less dry than my lecture.”

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