What makes a swan? It’s big, usually white and has a longer neck than a goose, the only other sort of wildfowl or domestic fowl that could possibly cause confusion.
According to the Collins Coloured Key to the Wildfowl of the World (in association with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust), there are usually considered to be seven white swan species, which are:
(Cygnus cygnus buccinator)
(Cygnus cygnus cygnus)
(Cygnus columbianus columbianus)
(Cygnus columbianus bewickii)
Perhaps the best way to differentiate is by the beaks – they are shown in the above order in the illustration on the left from the Collins Coloured Key to the Wildfowl of the World.
In England the swan has often made a good sign for a pub, inn or restaurant and here are some stylish modern examples…
European swans, for thousands of years, were nothing but white. But there are also many old English pubs called the Black Swan, even though there was no such bird. The black swan existed in European culture (and pub names) but only as a metaphor for something that couldn’t exist or was a wonder or at least a great rarity.
Here is a traditional old Black Swan hotel in Helmsley, North Yorkshire – a pub I have actually visited…
Although there was no black swan species in Europe, one was eventually discovered in Australia and naturalist John Latham named it Chenopis in 1790 when he examined a specimen sent back to England.
Now called Cygnus atratus, it’s a native of South Western and South Eastern Australia and New Zealand, but had to be reintroduced to New Zealand after being hunted to extinction.
Western Australia was originally called the Swan River Colony and in 1854 had its first penny black swan postage stamps. This is notable because in 1855 when a press broke, nearly 400 of the stamps were printed with the swan upside-down. Fewer than 20 of the “inverted black swan” stamps remain, so they are very rare and valuable to collectors. Strangely this stamp has been in my mind since I was a child, after it was mentioned in a comic strip in a Dandy or Beano annual I read…
You can probably tell an old black swan pub sign from a new one by the image as an ordinary British swan with black feathers, while more recently they are pictured as genuine Southern Hemisphere black swans with red eyes and red beaks…
This colouring was also vividly used in the publicity for the recent hit movie about the dark side of ballet, Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman…
There is one more swan – the black-necked swan, Cygnus melanocoryphus, native to South America. Its closest relatives are the black swan and mute swan.
But back to some design. A swan logo can be lifelike or stylised…
Elegance on the water is one of the key attributes of swans, although the illusion is ruined when you see those big, black, rubbery feet paddling away underneath!
Somehow I feel I can’t end without mentioning the Greek mythology of swans. I find it hard to believe such a big, brutal bird can be a romantic or sex symbol, but so it would seem.
I have previously told the story of Leda being seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan and giving birth to two pairs of twins in eggs here. Apparently the imagery was very popular in the 16th century when it was acceptable to depict a woman raped by a swan but not a man…
Here are some modern-day takes on the subject:
And finally, there’s the swan in the night sky…
The constellation of Cygnus or the Northern Cross is thought to represent Orpheus, turned into a swan and placed there after his murder, to be alongside his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
The brightest star in Cygnus (Deneb), combines with the brightest in Lyra (Vega) and the brightest in Aquila (Altair) to make the summer triangle in the northern hemisphere’s night sky.
That’s enough swanning about – I’ll be off now to find another designer bird to ponder…