Yes, after a teeny tiny delay, we return to Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael! This month, The Black Swan.
The black swan is more symbol than bird – a species that was commonly used as a metaphor in European society for more than 1500 years before it was first actually sighted by Europeans. It has since leant its name to statistical theories, swashbuckling pirate movies, Thom Yorke songs, batshit crazy Natalie Portman movies (and a subsequent, related fad diet!) and even the Bosnian special forces. I could spend my few hundred words rambling about the powerful symbolism of the black swan, but I’m meant to be a bird guy and this whole column is meant to be about birds. Besides, I’m sure Hayley will have that angle covered.
So, the bird. In most respects, they’re pretty basic swans – a bit smaller (and less deadly) than mute swans and not as impressive in the air as the migratory arctic swans, but shockingly, startlingly black. The idea of a black swan was so outlandish to Europeans, that the phrase ‘black swan’ had entered relatively common usage in 16th century English to describe something impossible, a usage that fell out of favour once they were ‘discovered’ by Dutch voyagers in Western Australia in the late 1600s. While they’ve since become widely associated with Western Australia (they’re the state bird and appear on the WA coat of arms), black swans are found throughout the country, from Cairns to Hobart, Adelaide to Broome. (Steph notes: because they’re the WA state bird, I actually had NO IDEA they were found across the country until I moved to Victoria and called everyone a liar)
Black swans are vegetarian, subsisting on algae, weeds and even grazing on grass like weird winged cows. They’re nomadic, happily moving great distances to follow the availability of food and water, but their movements remain poorly understood – anyone spotting a swan wearing a neck tag should take note of it and enter it at http://www.myswan.org.au, a fantastic research study that makes use of the general public’s bird enthusiasm to collect data on a population of 150 swans based loosely at Albert Park Lake. The researchers running this study have also punctured one of the major myths – black swan fidelity. While it’s true that swans tend to partner up for life, the researchers have found that Albert Park Lake is like a giant 1970s key party, with nearly 20% of all cygnets born the product of illicit cross-couple action. Saucy.
I’m not sure how to score black swans – they’re elegant and impressive birds and spotting a flying vee of them above the city skies never fails to give me a little lift, but they’re also aggressive and lacking the charisma of other iconic Australian birds. I’m feeling a bit like David and Margaret reviewing a dull Australian movie – I’ll give them three feathers, but I’m probably being too generous.
The black swan is a philosophical impossibility. Or at least it was supposed to be. Well done Australia in upturning centuries of inward-looking European thought, as per usual.
The idea originated with Juvenal and his line rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, or “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan” meaning someone whose qualities are so rare that they are essentially impossible and don’t exist. Satirists, they love a metaphor, especially snarky Roman ones.
Once the existence of black swans became knowledge in Europe, apart from ruining a lot of doctoral theses in philosophy across the continent, they also came to fascinate scientific circles in the way that general excitement over this ‘new’ southern land invigorated explorers, scientists and, as it turned out, even a French emperor.
Did you know that at the exact same time that George Bass and Matthew Flinders were circumnavigating and mapping Australia, there was a French team of explorers lead by Nicolas Baudin sent under the aegis of Napoleon doing the exact same thing, just in the opposite direction? Of course you don’t, because no one writing British-favoured history wants to admit that the French were good at anything, and indeed, we wouldn’t have had such a complete map of Australia at this time without these French explorers – you can still see their influence in French-sounding names for landmarks stretching from Victoria all the way to the Western Australia coast. No one also likes to admit that had history gone differently, half of Australia could have been a French colony (called TERRE NAPOLEON!).
So anyway, Baudin’s expedition also busily collected many specimens of Australian fauna and flora. They may have been officially collecting for the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, but Napoleon got into Baudin’s ear to make sure that plenty was being set aside for his wife, as Josephine had a very active interest in the natural sciences. Her home, Malmaison, ended up a free-ranging menagerie for a variety of animals from around the globe, including kangaroos, emus, and cockatoos.
But her favourites out of all her animals were her pair of black swans. They were also the only Australian animal to successfully breed at Malmaison, increasing to seven at the time of Josephine’s death in 1814. Many of the illustrations and engravings of the Malmaison grounds from the time feature the swans prominently. Europe was basically losing its MIND over them, and why wouldn’t you? BLACK SWANS.
If I may also add a quick addendum to Michael’s discussion of black swan breeding habits, there has been research that has discovered that a sizeable proportion of black swan pairs are actually homosexual males, and that they actively seek out opportunities to raise chicks by either stealing eggs from other nests, or entering into polyamorous threesomes with a female swan in order gain eggs, which I think is PRETTY DARN RAD.
In short, black swans are amazing. Who doesn’t have room to fill their heart with endless love for the bird that made thousands of years of crusty philosophers pop their monocles, whose propensity towards same sex relationships is an entirely normal occurrence, who were Empress Josephine’s favourite bird? HOW CAN YOU SAY NO TO EMPRESS JOSEPHINE?
Bird: Black Swan
Hayley: Four Feathers
Michael: Three Feathers