The ritual was first documented in the 12th century, when the bird was a popular dish at medieval feasts. The monarchy laid claim to the birds, which were a valuable food commodity, and doled out ownership charters in exchange for favors. Up to the mid-1800s, swan marking was akin to cow branding: A unique mark, carved into the beak of a newborn cygnet, designated ownership by a specific, chartered family or organization.
Henry VIII reportedly enjoyed swan at his dinner table. Today, swan eating doesn't go down so well with many Britons, who live in a country that Dr. Perrins describes as "bird oriented." In 2005, the Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Maxwell Davies, made headlines when he found a dead swan on his property and made a terrine of it. Mark McGowan, an activist artist, upset Britons when he ate swan in a performance protest against the queen in 2007.
This week, Mr. Barber's crew counted and weighed roughly 120 newborn swans. When they come upon a brood, the rowers yell "All up!" and surround the birds with their skiffs. After deftly bringing the swans aboard, the uppers temporarily tie them up.
"The best way is to sit on the bird," said Robert Dean, a boat builder and three-year veteran of the royal crew, who stood on the Eton dock Monday morning with a bundle of swan ties holstered in his belt. Once the newborn swans are weighed and tagged with identification rings, they are entered into the log and released into the river.
Friday, July 24, 2009
"D. Barber, H.M. Swan Marker"
At the Wall Street Journal, Paul Sonne on the annual tradition of conducting a census of the Queen's cygnets in the Thames (link courtesy of Julia Hoban):