Annual “Swan Upping” on the Thames River

Tradition is important in England, and if it involves the Queen or King, then it is really important!  One aspect of royal tradition is now also important as a conservation and education tool—the annual “Swan Upping” on the Thames River.

The subject of all this attention is the mute swan (Cygnus olor) (photo by Nick Goodrum)

Since the 12th Century, representatives of the British monarchy (today that’s Queen Elizabeth II) have conducted an annual census of the population of mute swans (Cygnus Olor).  The swans were valuable back then as a food resource, and, just like cattle in the American West, swans were “branded” so the owners knew which belonged to whom.   In mid-summer, the Royal Swan Marker and his crew rounded up families of swans by surrounding them with long, narrow row-boats (when they spotted a swan family, they cried “all up” and surrounded the bevy; hence the name swan “upping”).  They checked the birds for disease and injury, and they marked the young, called cygnets, with the same ownership brand as the adults.  In earlier centuries, the mark was a distinctive series of nicks cut into the birds’ bills; today it is a leg-band, just like those used throughout the world for scientific purposes.

An 1875 engraving by William J. Palmer shows swan upping in progress on the Upper Thames

The subject of all this effort, the mute swan, is a staple in European culture and history (for a long time, it was literally a staple on the dinner plates of hungry English families).  The birds feature in ancient cave art, and their mostly monogamous, life-long pairing has made them a symbol of love and faithfulness.  Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling is about a mute swan.  

The species was introduced into North America throughout the late 1800s and 1900s as an ornamental bird for the ponds of wealthy landowners and parks.  It is now commonplace across the continent.  Despite its majestic beauty, the mute swan can be a nuisance, displacing native birds by its aggressive behavior and degrading native ecosystems by its voracious appetite.

Today, England’s annual Swan Upping occurs during the third week of July (in 2021, it started on July 20).  Although swan upping was once a widespread and economically important activity, today it occurs as a ceremonial event over several days on a 79-mile stretch of the Thames River north of London.

The process continues to this day (photo by Bill Tyne)

But it is perhaps more important today than ever.  Today Swan Upping is all about conservation and environmental education. The annual event continues to monitor the health of the mute swan population, providing an index of general environmental quality.  Associated events involve children in observing the birds and learning about their biology and the overall ecology of the Thames River, especially pollution and damage to birds from fishing lines and other litter.

But all in all, I think it’s great that we get “up” for conserving our natural resources.  Anyone ready for tea and crumpets?

References:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Mute Swan.  Available at:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mute_Swan/overview.  Accessed July 21, 2021.

House of Windsor.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  http://www.thamesweb.co.uk/windsor/windsor1999/upping.html. Accessed July 21, 2021.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.  Mute Swan.  Available at:  https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/mute-swan/. Accessed July 21, 2021.

The Royal Family.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  https://www.royal.uk/swans. Accessed July 21, 2021.

The Queen’s Swan Marker.  Swan Upping.  Available at:  http://www.royalswan.co.uk. Accessed July 21, 2021.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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