Our imminently arriving swans whistle their way through life
by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
Swan Song was abridged for space in Bay Weekly's print edition. Here it runs at full length.
As I write, the tundra swans are flying 4000 miles from the Arctic to our shores, where they have sojourned each winter for millennia. We herald their return as mid-Atlantic people have done for centuries. On shimmering wings, the swans arrive and settle onto Chesapeake Bay in flocks of 20s to 100s, their whooping calls reverberating through trees still clinging to burnished leaves.
These gleaming birds received the common name tundra swans in 1983. The name was bestowed by ornithologists noting our North American species’ close relationship to the Bewick’s swan of Europe. But many still use our smallest swan’s original name, whistling swan. Some say the name describes the whistle of their mighty wings as they pump into the sky. The two western explorers who coined their name, however, were not referring to their wings but to the curious sound of the swans’ voices.
Naming the Smallest Swan
On March 9, 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were camped along the Columbia River below the rapids of The Dalles, Oregon. In their journals, they recorded their sightings of two types of swan. The larger, the familiar trumpeter swan once common throughout the U.S., is now making a comeback in the West after a severe decline. The smaller swan was new to the scientist-explorers Thomas Jefferson sent to discover a westward passage.
The Large Swan, the explorers wrote in their sounds-like spelling, is precisely the same common to the Atlantic States. The small swan differs from the larger one in size and it's note. it is about one fourth less and it's note is entirely different. the latter cannot be justly immetated by the sound of letters nor do I know any sounds with which a comparison would be pertinent. it begins with a kind of whistleing sound and terminates in a round full note which is reather louder than the whistleing, or former part; this note is as loud as that of the large swan. from the peculiar whistleing of the note of this bird I have called it the whistleing swan.
Jefferson expected Lewis and Clark to observe, describe and send home the many new species they encountered. Their knowledge of eastern species and their detailed descriptions made it easy for ornithologists to identify what they had seen. The whistling swan was new to science, having never before been named or cited in the literature.
George Ord, an American ornithologist working for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, received specimens and descriptions of many species from Lewis and Clark, and in 1815, he officially listed the new name: whistling swan, Cygnus columbianus, swan of the Columbia. The name soon appeared in natural history books. The name endured long after Lewis and Clark’s role as discoverers was forgotten.
As Clark noted, capturing the swans’ calls in words presents difficulties, but many throughout history have tried. In 1840, John James Audubon published an account by Dr. Sharpless, noting the migratory arrival of the whistling swans to the Virginia and North Carolina coasts.
They arrive at their winter homes in October and November and immediately take possession of their regular feeding grounds. They generally reach these places in the night, and the first signal of their arrival at their winter abode is a general burst of melody, making the shores ring for several hours with the vociferating congratulations whist making amends for a long fast and pluming their deranged feathers.
All who listen each fall for the swans know their voices: The haunting oboe-like fluting that drifts across the Bay under starry skies, their babbling melody as they convene at feeding grounds. E. S. Cameron, who listened to the whistling swans as they migrated through his home in central Montana in 1912, also found their voices orchestral.
The wild swans upon taking wing, or when arriving on migration, produce sounds like the slow shake of two notes upon a clarinet. If the flock is large … so many throats yield a great volume of musical sound. When the quiescent swans become suddenly alarmed, and contemplate flight, a subdued chorus runs through the flock like different modulations from an orchestra of reed instruments. Under no circumstances could the swan voices be compared to brass instruments.
We hear their reedy honking as they fly on whistling wings; we listen to their black feet slap the water as they run, wings pumping, to become airborne. But the swans save some of their sounds for the Arctic.
You Didn’t Hear It Here
On summer days when Arctic snowfields finally recede, the downy cygnets hatch. The parent swans immediately begin a soft murmuring, a kuk-kuk sound imitated and repeated by the young. This quiet connection ties the family together. But it was earlier courtship songs that first established the pairs’ life-long bond.
Alfred M. Bailey recalls listening to a June courtship in Alaska in the 1920s.
The tundra was still clothed in its winter’s coat of white. It was the height of spring migration. Then far out on the tundra I heard a different call, a clamoring, quavering call, first full and loud and gradually dying down. With the aid of the glasses, I made out three swans, possibly two males performing for the benefit of the female. They walked about with arched necks proudly lifted, taking high steps, with wings outstretched, two birds occasionally bowing to each other, and as they performed, they continually kept calling.
The swans sing at birth, in courtship, in flight and at daily meetings. And, as mythology tells us, they also sing at their death.
Legends say that the European swan, the mute swan (a non-native also found on the Bay) never sings until it dies. This final song of swans proclaimed by Aesop and Socrates was soundly refuted by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77AD. But the compelling image continued to be used by artists and writers, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and more recently, by Led Zeppelin. It remains in our common language today; a swan song referring to a person’s final and finest work.
Alfred Lord Tennyson captures the poignancy of the moment in his 1893 poem “The Dying Swan.”
The wild swan's death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow'd forth on a carol free and bold …
Do swans really sing when they die? Is this true for our tundra swan? In 1898, Dr. D. G. Eliot, hunting in Currituck Sound, N.C., found an answer.
Eliot had hunted and killed many whistling swans, but he never heard the famed swan song until one day, while shooting with a friend. A flock of swans passed over, and after the hunters fired, one of the swans was mortally wounded.
On receiving his wound the wings became fixed and he commenced at once his song, which was continued until the water was reached, nearly half a mile away. I am perfectly familiar with every note a swan is accustomed to utter, but never before nor since have I heard any like those sung by this stricken bird. Most plaintive in character and musical in tone, it sounded at times like the soft running of the notes in an octave, and as the sound was borne to us, mellowed by the distance, we stood astonished, and could only exclaim, ‘We have heard the song of the dying swan.’
As we celebrate the return of the tundra swans to our shores, head to the Bay to listen in the crisp air. For despite the attempts of nature writers, words cannot capture sound. Nuance and complexity of tone and rhythm must be experienced; the music must vibrate in our bones.
The tundra swans are whistling. It’s time to listen.
Hear the tundra swans at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, 15 minutes from the Bay Bridge in Grasonville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Open daily 9AM-5PM: $5 with age and member discounts. 410 827-6694.
To listen from your desk, log on to All About Birds: www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds and search tundra swan under Bird Guide. Click on sounds.