Swans are large water birds of the family Anatidae,
which also includes geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the
closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae where they form
the tribe Cygnini. Sometimes, they are considered a distinct
Swans usually mate for life, though "divorce" does sometimes occur, particularly following nesting failure. The number of eggs in each clutch is between 3–8.
The word is derived from Old English swan, akin to the German
Schwan and Dutch zwaan, in turn derived from Indo-European root
*swen (to sound, to sing), whence Latin derives sonus (sound).
(Webster's New World Dictionary) Young swans are known as
cygnets, from the Latin word for swan, cygnus. An adult male is
a cob, from Middle English cobbe (leader of a group); an adult
female is a pen (origin unknown).
The Northern Hemisphere species of swan have pure white plumage but the Southern Hemisphere species are white-and-black. The Australian Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) is completely black except for the white flight feathers on its wings, and the South American Black-necked Swan has a black neck.
The legs of swans are dark blackish grey, except for the two South American species, which have pink legs. Bill color varies; the four subarctic species have black bills with varying amounts of yellow, and all the others are patterned red and black. The Mute Swan and Black-necked Swan have a lump at the base of the bill on the upper mandible.
All evidence suggests that the genus Cygnus evolved in Europe or western Eurasia during the Miocene, spreading all over the Northern Hemisphere until the Pliocene. When the southern species branched off is not known. The Mute Swan apparently is closest to the Southern Hemisphere Cygnus; its habits of carrying the neck curved (not straight) and the wings fluffed (not flush) as well as its bill color and knob indicate that its closest living relative is actually the Black Swan. Given the biogeography and appearance of the subgenus Olor it seems likely that these are of a more recent origin, as evidenced by their modern ranges (which were mostly uninhabitable during the last ice age) and great similarity between the taxa.
Many of the cultural aspects refer to the Mute Swan of Europe.
Perhaps the best known story about a swan is The Ugly Duckling
fable. The story centers around a duckling who is mistreated
until it becomes evident he is a swan and is accepted into the
habitat. He was mistreated because real ducklings are, according
to many, more attractive than a cygnet, yet cygnets become
swans, which are very attractive creatures. Swans are often a
symbol of love or fidelity because of their long-lasting
monogamous relationships. See the famous swan-related operas
Lohengrin and Parsifal.
Swan maidens, shapeshifters who are able to transform from human to swan and vice versa, are a worldwide motif in folklore. The typical tale is of a swan maiden who is temporarily robbed of her powers and forced to marry a human man.
Swans feature strongly in mythology. In Greek mythology, the story of Leda and the Swan recounts that Helen of Troy was conceived in a union of Zeus disguised as a swan and Leda, Queen of Sparta.
The Irish legend of the Children of Lir is about a stepmother transforming her children into swans for 900 years. Myths also exist about swans themselves. It was once believed that upon death the otherwise silent Mute Swan would sing beautifully - hence the phrase swan song.
In Norse mythology, there are two swans that drink from the sacred Well of Urd in the realm of Asgard, home of the gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well is so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including this original pair of swans and all others descended from them. The poem Volundarkvida, or the Lay of Volund, part of the Poetic Edda, also features swan maidens.
In the Russian fable, „Гуси — лебеди“, the swan is a servant of an evil witch who helps her by bringing her children.
In the Finnish epic Kalevala, a swan lives in the Tuoni river located in Tuonela, the underworld realm of the dead. According to the story, whoever killed a swan would perish as well. Jean Sibelius composed the Lemminkäinen Suite based on Kalevala, with the second piece entitled Swan of Tuonela (Tuonelan joutsen). Today five flying swans are the symbol of the Nordic Countries and the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) is the national bird of Finland.
In Latin American literature, the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío (1867-1916) consecrated the swan as a symbol of artistic inspiration by drawing attention to the constancy of swan imagery in Western culture, beginning with the rape of Leda and ending with Wagner's Lohengrin. Darío's most famous poem in this regard is Blasón - "Coat of Arms" (1896), and his use of the swan made it a symbol for the Modernismo poetic movement that dominated Spanish language poetry from the 1880s until the First World War. Such was the dominance of Modernismo in Spanish language poetry that the Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez attempted to announce the end of Modernismo with a sonnet provocatively entitled, Tuércele el cuello al cisne - "Wring the Swan's Neck" (1910).
Swans are revered in many religions and cultures, especially Hinduism. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa ("Great Swan") on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter, eat pearls, and separate milk from water in a mixture of both. Hindu iconography typically shows the Mute Swan. It is wrongly supposed by many historians that the word hamsa only refers to a goose, since today swans are no longer found in India, not even in most zoos. However, ornithological checklists clearly classify several species of swans as vagrant birds in India.
One Chinese idiom about swans is how "a toad wants to eat swan flesh!". This idiom is used derisively on men who desire women who are beyond their station in terms of wealth, social class or beauty.
The Black Swan is the faunal emblem of the Australian state of Western Australia and swans are featured on the coat of arms of Canberra, the Australian capital.
Swans play a role in LucasArts' graphic adventure computer game Loom. In the game, swans are shown to be what becomes of members of the Guild of Weavers who are either banished or die. They transcend to a higher plane of existence and become swans. The main character Bobbin's mother was also named Cygna, which is a variation of the word cygnus.
Today swans are used symbolically or as brands. The Sydney Swans AFL Team uses a swan as its club emblem/mascot, and Swansea City A.F.C.'s mascot is a swan called Cyril the Swan.
This Swan Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub