On a Swan Lover

David Barber loves birds. Waterfowl, more particularly. Mute swans, most specifically.

For over three decades, Mr. Barber has been caring for the mute swans in London along the Thames. Every year, he leads a group of fellow swan lovers in an official count of the swans and cygnets (a young swan–a swanlet, if you will) on the river. This yearly practice is known as the Swan Upping. Before he and his fellow swan lovers take to the river in their boats, Mr. Barber dons a red jacket and marks the swans of all ages and submits an official count. He employs bunches of schoolchildren and other volunteers to help him in his yearly task. The man absolutely loves that day and orients his year around it.

If you will recall your On the First Day of Christmas lyrics, you’ll remember that one of the gifts was seven swans a-swimming. This sounds lovely and almost majestic, but the gift had more to do with food than looks. Swans, you see, used to be the food of only the upper classes, of royalty. The Christmas gifts were supposed to be those fit for someone so cherished that they deserved the best, thus, giving them swans to eat implied that the recipient was worthy. Eating them fell out of popularity among the upper classes in the 1700s, and the birds were granted protected status in the 1980s. However, King Henry III served his upper class and royal guests several dozen swans at a Christmas dinner during his reign in the 13th Century.

The yearly count headed up by Mr. Barber gives environmentalists a snapshot and one indicator of the relative health of the ecosystem of the Thames. Counts of the birds and reports of their conditions are compared to other years’ data and cross-checked with several environmental issues such as an increase or decrease of the pollution in the air and water of the city of London, the impact of avian diseases, and other factors that might impact swan numbers. The birds are carefully measured and weighed; their nests and feathers are inspected. Swans that are injured are tended to, fishing line is removed from wings, and trash is taken off legs, etc.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that all the swans on the Thames have one owner. That owner is the person who receives the final report of the Swan Upping. Please know that the ownership of swans in the UK is not limited to only the ones on the Thames, however. Royal decree orders that all swans not privately owned today have the same owner, and that owner is the person that David Barber works for.

You know the owner of all the swans in the United Kingdom as King Charles III.

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