The Australian Black Swan

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Roof Rack Forum Member • Posts: 72
The Australian Black Swan
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The Australian Swan (Cygnus atratus) is a large and black bird and a sharp colour contrast to the five white Northern Hemisphere species. This (wary) female is typical: her plumage is the colour of charcoal with the individual feathers lightly fringed in white. The neck is long - longer in the male - with a bright red eye ring and beak, the latter with a thin white bar. Both sexes have bright white wing feathers that are spectacular when flying but mostly hidden when folded. Both sexes have a fringe of 'bustle' feathers over the rump: apparently display purposes only.

The cygnets, these likely 2-3 weeks old, have black beaks and white downy feathers that slowly darken with age.

Either adult conducts the 'schooling' of the cygnets - what to eat and where to find it. Here the female skims the surface for small fragments of water plants.

When travelling, a convoy configuration is usual with male in front, female at rear and the cygnets protected in between. Note the size of the male relative to the female. The 'bustle' feathers are prominent on both sexes. Swans are fearless defenders of their young and will attack the face or head of any threat, photographers included.

Swans are primarily grazers of the soft and digestible water plants but also relish the lush green grass of lawns, golf courses and turf farms. Surprisingly, they occasionally browse (the much less digestible) tree leaves, such as the new leaves of willow (Salix species). Because, willow bark was the original source of an analgesic (aspirin), I suspected these leaves may contain some attractive compound. However, the only standout chemical is vitamin C at levels at up to 10 times that of citrus fruits - puzzling.

Swans are enjoyed and protected throughout Australia. They are special birds not just because they readily habituate to people, their presence and behaviour encourages a feeling of calmness or serenity in most observers. Several composers have tried to translate their emotional response to swans into music. The most realistic is a cello piece by the French composer, Saint-Saëns, called "The Swan".

The first description of the Australian Black Swan was by a Dutch explorer in 1697 in the now state of Western Australia, when exploring a river, now known as The Swan River. The image of a Black Swan is widely used as an icon in Australian government and commercial communications.

The Coat of Arms of the city of Canberra, the political capital of Australia - a Washington DC equivalent. Two swan images are used to illustrate a historic cultural and political connection. The White or Mute Swan represents England, and the Black Swan represents Australia. One interpretation is that the two swan species differ only in colour, all else is equal.  Australians say the colour represents political maturity because Australians are Citizens whereas the English are still Subjects.

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