Is the mute swan a native bird?

THE common or garden swan, the mute swan, is one of Ireland’s most widespread and familiar birds.

Everyone knows them. They can be confused with no other birds, except perhaps the two winter migrant swans —- the whoopers and the increasingly rare Bewick’s swan. But there’s a mystery about mute swans.

They often seem semi-tame. They beg for crusts in park ponds and marinas. And yet people are nervous of them and tell tales of drowned dogs and broken human arms. Are they wild or are they tame? Where did they come from? These are not easy questions to answer. If you turn to the experts they are evasive and somewhat contradictory. David Cabot, writing nearly 20 years ago, said: “Although the history of the Irish mute swans is not fully known, they are thought to have been brought in by English landlords as ornamental species to adorn their private lakes and ponds.” So he is cautiously suggesting they are blow-ins.

More modern writers are equally evasive. The erudite Jim Wilson in ‘Freshwater Birds of Ireland’ (2011) acknowledges an archaeological find of ancient swan bones in Co Cork. The trouble is that it is very difficult to tell the fossil bones of mute swans from those of whooper swans. So he tends to cautiously agree with David Cabot that “most of our mute swans today are probably descended from birds introduced from Britain onto ornamental ponds and lakes around the island between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.”

The eminent Northern Irish ornithologist Anthony McGeehan, quoting Witherby et al, seems to cast a little doubt on the received thinking. For Ireland they state: “No evidence of swan-keeping and early history unknown. Now generally distributed. Wild migrants may occur”.

The doubt arises because swans were regarded as a luxury food. In Britain we now know that they once existed as a wild native species but, at some date in the Middle Ages (before 1186 AD) the wild birds were simultaneously domesticated and exterminated, leaving only a domestic population which, since 1186, became the property of the crown.

So, in the absence of evidence, we can speculate. Ireland is a watery country offering ideal mute swan habitat. It is very unlikely that this habitat was not colonised by the species at some stage in history. This native population could have survived in wild places and contributed to the gene pool of our modern swans.

SNOWDROP (Galanthus nivalis)

The snowdrop isn’t a native Irish wild-flower but it is extensively naturalised, meaning that bulbs planted or dumped by people are now growing as wild flowers in woods and even road verges all over the country. The flowers, white veined with green, usually appear first in late January and last through February, as the days lengthen. They are eagerly awaited as a sign that winter is loosening it’s grip and spring is on the way.

Wild common snowdrops are widespread across continental Europe in upland areas — or, at least, they used to be. Over zealous collection has reduced their numbers and they now have to be protected by various national and international laws. There are hundreds of cultivated varieties, both single and double flowered, and some of them are so rare that dedicated collectors will pay large sums of money for a single tiny bulb. But for most ordinary people the joy comes from seeing the first bulb of spring unfurl its tiny flower head.

— Dick Warner




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