SWANS, BLACK AND WHITE
A few pairs of black swans have been placed upon the river. Some of these rear broods of young ones, and appear to be quite acclimatised. The black swan was known to the traders of our own East India Company nearly a century before Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks discovered Botany Bay. The first notice of it appears in a letter, written about the year 1698, by a Mr. Watson to Dr. M. Lister, in which he says, "Here is returned a ship which by our East India Company was sent to the South Land, called Hollandia Nova," and adds that black swans, parrots, and many sea-cows were found there. In 1726, two were brought alive to Batavia, which were caught on the West Coast of Australia, near Hartop Bay, but no good account of their habits was ever written till Gould put together the facts he had seen and learnt on the spot.
The habits in their native land of birds which we only see acclimatised and domesticated, sometimes give a clue to what can be done to domesticate other breeds. This swan is only found in Australia, and only locally there, in the south and west. There it takes the place occupied by the Brent goose in our northern latitude, both as a water bird and as a source of food to the natives. "Wherever there are rivers, estuaries of the sea, lagoons, and pools of water of any extent the bird is generally distributed," says Gould. "Sometimes it occurs in such numbers that flocks of many hundreds can be seen together, particularly on those arms of the sea which, after passing the beachline of the coast, expand into great sheets of shallow water, on which the birds are seldom disturbed either by the force of boisterous winds or the intrusion of the natives. In the white man, however, the black swan finds an enemy so deadly, that in many parts where it was formerly quite numerous it has been almost, if not entirely, extirpated.
"This has been particularly the case on some of the larger rivers of Tasmania, but on the salt lagoons and inlets of D'Entrecasteaux's channel, the little-frequented bays of the southern and western shores of that island and the entrance to Melbourne Harbour at Port Phillip, it is still numerous." This was written in 1865, when to voyagers to the new continent the black swans of Melbourne Harbour were sometimes a first and striking reminder that they had reached a new world. One of the most deadly means of killing off the black swans was to chase them in boats, and either to net or club them, when they had shed all their flight feathers. This is what Mr. Trevor Battye saw the Samoyeds doing to the Brent geese on Kolguev Island. Thousands were driven into a kind of kraal, and killed for winter food. Next to the pelagic sealer, the whalers and ordinary seal-hunters are the worst scourges of the animal world. They killed off, for instance, every single one of the Antarctic right whales, and nearly all the Cape and Antarctic fur seals. But it is not generally known that they succeeded in almost killing off the black swans in some districts. They caught and killed them in boatloads, not for the flesh, but to take the swans' down. Black swans have white wings, though as they are nearly always pinioned here, a stupid habit which our people have learnt from the ancient and time-honoured brutality of "swan upping," we never see them flying. They are then very beautiful objects, with their plumage of ebon and ivory.
In Australia they begin to lay in October, and the young are hatched and growing in January. They are very prolific birds, laying from five to eight light-green eggs with brownish buff markings. Some years ago a splendid brood of six jolly little nigger cygnets were hatched out by the black swans at Kew. But the most successful breeder of black swans in this country was Mr. Samuel Gurney, who began his stock with a pair on the river Wandle, at Carshalton. He bought them in Leadenhall Market, in 1851. They did not breed till three years later, and laid their first egg on January 1st.
This is very interesting, because it shows that so far these birds were not acclimatised, but kept more or less to the seasons of reproduction proper to their native land. They were laying in what is the Australian summer and our mid-winter. It was a most severe winter, and the young ones were hatched out in a severe frost, which had lasted all the time that the birds were sitting in the open. The cygnets lived - it is not stated how many there were - and later on, the parents continued to breed, till in 1862, eight years after, they had hatched ninety-three young ones, and reared about half the number. The most extraordinary thing about the original pair was that they seem to have taken on both our seasons and their own, laying both in our spring and in the Australian spring, and so hatching two broods a year. They bred sixteen times in seven years - or probably seven and a half - and in that time laid one hundred and eleven eggs. The interest of this story is very considerable, because it shows the imperfect and exhausting efforts which Nature causes animals to make to adapt their breeding time to a new climate. Black swans which are descended from young birds bred in this country conform to the ordinary nesting-time of our hemisphere.