They come in as if rattling sabres - or whatever it was the old Vikings rattled - Scandinavian invaders known as fieldfares and redwings.
In particular, the coarse voices of the fieldfares rattling drily across the autumn landscape almost as if they were issuing warnings of their presence again, perhaps like the Vikings of old did. They fly from hedgerow to hedgerow gobbling up the last remaining rowans as if there was no tomorrow.
These avaricious raiders can strip a tree of its remaining harvest of red berries in minutes and they are also prepared to invade the fields and strip them of their invertebrate riches. If they seem unduly avaricious, their arrival is entirely due to the fact that they have been frozen out of their native heaths of Scandinavia and northern Russia and here they seek winter solace.
The vigour of these new invaders contrasts starkly with other arrivals which appear less aggressive and altogether more peaceful. Indeed, there is a majesty and magical mysticism about the whooper swans that are sailing in from Iceland like so many fine galleons in full sail. Their arrival is signaled by softer voices which flute gently and contrast starkly with the sound of the raucous geese and the harsh ‘chacking’ of the fieldfares. Theirs is an altogether quieter audio dimension compared with that of the northern thrushes. These are, of course, the true wild swans of our winter months and as such, they are considerably more athletic than their more sedentary, heavier cousins, the mute swans.
Man has always had a fascination for swans as witness the artwork of our cave-dwelling ancestors who depicted them in their drawings and clearly admired their beauty. Or course, they must also have been very aware of their comings and goings in autumn and spring. These days, we may regard the etchings in stone of beasts of the chase, hares, bears and of course swans left by those early civilisations as being relatively crude, yet they are perhaps among the first signs of artistic talent in mankind because, after all, those cave drawings do have a beauty of their own.
And whereas tradition tells us that mute swans were often served up as the culinary centre-piece at medieval banquets in later times, apparently no such fate befell the true wild swans, such as whoopers and what later became known as Bewick’s swans. We don’t generally see Bewick’s in Scotland for they winter in the deep south of England and places like the Netherlands. They also spend their summers in northern Russia whereas, the whoopers that winter here come from Iceland. Oddly enough, many years ago I saw a Bewick’s swan off the Ayrshire coast. It had been colour marked which enabled the experts to identify it as a Bewick’s swan which, as far as I know, was the only one to have been seen in Scotland at that time.
There is recent evidence of people hunting the Bewick’s in those northern parts of Russia but clearly there is nothing in folk-lore stating that to kill one would bring ill-fortune to the slayer which is very much the case with regard to whooper swans. The bad luck that is alleged to come to anyone guilty of harming a wild swan appears to be embodied in the folklore of several Continents. However, Ireland does seem to be a particular source of such legends. In the Emerald Isle there has long been a belief that the souls of dead people are transferred to wild swans and a swan killed was assuredly a forecast that one of the local villagers would be likely to die imminently. Not surprisingly, there were also similar beliefs held in parts of Scotland’s Western Isles and similar legends existed in Serbia, in Wales, the Isle of Man and the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde. In Germany and in Russia too there are the stories of swan maidens, beautiful damsels who were transformed into swans. Such stories also persist among the North Americans, the Spanish and in African and Arabic cultures.
It appears that ancient man has always recognized the difference between the almost domesticated mute swan and the more athletic Bewick’s and whooper wild swans. The newly arrived whoopers breed in the tundra of Iceland and whereas all over the world, mute swans seem to show a familiarity with mankind, always willing to share food with us along familiar river or loch-sides where on occasions they terrify people with their aggressive hissing, whooper swans are nothing like as approachable and shun close contact with humans. I would also suggest that whoopers, together with Bewick’s swans, are considerably more courageous than our mute swans. The very fact that whoopers ferry themselves the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile north Atlantic in autumn and back to Iceland in spring, makes them far more adventurous than the sedate mute.
And if those journeys seem hazardous, consider the ordeal it must be for the year’s young cygnets which, barely a few months old, are being called upon to make such terrifying journeys, Furthermore, the sense of weather conditions with which such birds are imbued, means that to avoid flying into the teeth of really hostile situations they are prepared to really go to the extreme and fly at heights in excess of thirty thousand feet. Whooper swans have been recorded at such altitudes on airline pilots’ radar and at that level, temperatures can drop to -50 degrees and there is a distinct shortage of oxygen. Of course, at times their journeys in the autumn are aided by the jet stream which may result in them travelling at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour.
Apart from being obviously lighter, less bulky and more athletic than the sedentary mute swan, whooper swans are also easily recognized by their posture. The familiar graceful curve of the mute swan’s neck is more often than not replaced by an erect neck in the case of the whooper. The seer above the beak is also yellow in both the whooper and Bewick’s swan rather than orange and as you might realise, the whooper is more adept than its mute cousin when it comes to flying. As anyone who has watched a mute taking off from water, it will be seen that it needs a fairly long runway in order to become airborne but by comparison, the whooper swan can get into the air much more quickly and with less effort,
I well remember when a year or two ago, a whooper took up residence on one of our local lochs which was the permanent home of a pair of mute swans. The mute cob took umbrage and went to chase the intruder off and with feet pumping, wings raised, he launched a full-frontal water-borne attack but the whooper responded by taking off and flying to the other end of the loch. Soon the mute cob gave chase again only for the whooper to leave and then return to his original position. The cob again set off in pursuit but it was like a game of avian tennis which the mute cob was never going to win and in the end, he gave up and decided reluctantly to tolerate the presence of the whooper.
In a sense, the arrival of our migrant whooper swans completes the immigration set. Birds however, are always on the move and should we have a hard winter those fieldfares and redwings may move on towards the Mediterranean. According to the carol, there will certainly be six swans a swimming over Christmas, but the graceful fluting whooper swans will be with us until next spring.