CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the Ottawa's history.
June 28, 1967
In Britain, there has been an association between the monarchy and mute swans (Cygnus Olor) that dates back to the twelfth century.
Traditionally, the Crown claims ownership of all mute swans in open water in England and Wales. The monarch can, however, give the privilege of owning swans to others. In 1483, King Edward IV ruled that only the gentry owing land worth more than five marks (£3. 7s. 6d.) could own “swannes.”
Today, other than the Crown, only three groups hold the privilege of owning the waterfowl—the Company of Vintners and the Company of Dyers, who received the right in the 1460s, and the Ilchester family of Abbotsbury, Dorset. The Ilchester family gained the privilege when it acquired property previously owned by Benedictine monks following the dissolution of the monasteries during the sixteenth century by King Henry VIII.
Today, the Queen’s swan rights are only enforced over part of the Thames River.
Each year, at the ceremonial “Swan Upping,” held during the third week in July, young swans, called cygnets, are rounded up on the river between the towns of Sunbury and Abingdon and distributed among the Crown and the two Companies. In the old days, the beaks of the swans going to the Companies were marked, one nick for Dyers’ birds and two nicks for Vintners’ birds. Birds owned by the Crown were left unmarked. Today, instead of nicking the beaks, the birds are banded.
You might wonder why all the bother.
The purpose of the modern “Upping” is not so much about ownership but rather about monitoring the health of the mute swan population on the Thames. It’s also about having fun, dressing up in fancy uniforms and getting out on the water in traditional wooden skiffs on a warm, summer’s day.
Back in medieval times, however, it was very serious business. Swans were a valuable commodity, and were eaten as poultry, much like chickens, ducks and geese are today. Swan was the fowl of choice of the aristocracy at feasts.
But for some reason, swan flesh went out of fashion. The taste might have been a factor. While Master Chef Mario Batali claims swan meat is “delicious—deep red, lean, lightly gamey, moist, and succulent”—others have called it “gristly” and “mud flavoured.” If you happen to come across swan at your neighbourhood butcher (most unlikely), and wish to give it a try, here is a link to a fourteenth-century recipe for roasted swan with chaudon (a.k.a. giblet) sauce. Roasted swan.
Royal mute swans came to Ottawa in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, as a gift to the nation’s capital from Queen Elizabeth who also doubles as Seigneur of Swans.
It was not the first time that Canada has received Royal swans.
In 1912, George V gave a pair of Royal mute swans from his flock at Hampton Court to St. Thomas, Ontario. The birds were settled on Pinafore Lake. They didn’t flourish. More mute swans were imported in the early 1950s from the United States, Scotland and from Stratford, Ontario which itself received mute swans in 1918 from J. C. Garden. Today, St. Thomas’s imported mute swans have been replaced by native trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) in a programme to re-introduce the breed into southern Ontario. King Edward VIII also presented two Royal swans to North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1936.
The gift of swans has not always been unidirectional. In 1951, the Federal and British Columbian governments gave six Canadian trumpeter swans to the then Princess Elizabeth. The swans were put into the care of the Severn Wild Fowl Trust.
Ottawa’s Royal mute swans arrived in the city in late May, 1967, the culmination of careful planning on the part of Buckingham Place, Rideau Hall, the City of Ottawa, the Federal government and two airlines.
Arriving by airplane at Uplands Airport, the birds, which had been specially selected by the Keeper of the Queen’s Swans from the Thames River, were placed into precautionary quarantine.
At 4 p.m. on June 28, 1967, following speeches by the Governor General and Ottawa’s Mayor Donald Reid in front of hundreds of guests, eight Royal swans were released into the Rideau River just above the Rideau Falls on the grounds of the old city hall (now the Federal government’s John G. Diefenbaker building) on Green Island. Two other pairs of swans remained at the “swan house” at the City’s Leitrum tree nursery for breeding purposes. Noting that swans mated for life, Governor General Roland Mitchener joked that in light of the prospective liberalization of Canada’s divorce laws, the birds might have to face “some previously unknown temptations.” The birds’ ability to fly was disabled to stop them from straying, physically if not maritially.
The swans were in place on July 1, 1967, Canada’s centennial day, ready for the Queen’s inspection when she and Prince Philip arrived at City Hall on their Royal Tour of Canada. The Ottawa Journal wrote that the swans, paddling from shore to shore on the Rideau River “enhanced a scene of calm and beauty.” Their “regal beauty complemented every natural and man-made fixture in sight.”
The graceful, long-necked, white birds were an instant sensation as they cruised the Rideau River, stopping along the way to eat aquatic vegetation, as well as the odd tadpole, snail or insect. Couples quickly established territories along the river bank.
When the cold weather came in late October, the birds were moved to their winter quarters at Ottawa’s tree nursery in Leitrim. There, they were housed in less than regal surroundings in a greenhouse made of heavy-duty plastic and chicken wire with an earthen floor and an artificial pond.
In 1971, a wooden swan house was built with pens for each couple and an outside exercise yard. The birds were cared by Ottawa’s first swanmaster, Gerry Strik, who was also the manager of the Leitrim tree nursery. Strik had previous experience caring for swans in his native Holland. That same year, the Royal swans made their theatrical debut, appearing in the National Arts Centre production of the Marriage of Figaro. Swanmaster Strik, dressed appropriately, was in the wings in case the birds misbehaved. Appearing on stage for the entire final act, the swans performed admirably.
There were, however, some reservations about the new Rideau River inhabitants.
One City Councillor worried that the honking of swans might be a violation of the city’s anti-noise by-law. His concern was allayed by Margaret Farr, the deputy commissioner of Ottawa’s Parks and Recreation Department. She said the birds were relatively quiet, though they sometimes “grunted like pigs.” Another councillor worried about the swans’ reproductive capacity. As mute swans lay clutches of up to five eggs, he figured that within five years Ottawa could be the proud owner of 72 pairs of birds. Mute swans are also long-lived, with a lifespan of 30 years or more.
This later concern turned out to be prophetic.
Quickly, the swan population rose despite losses due to disease and misfortune. Sadly, there were also a number of cases of cruelty towards the birds and their nestlings. Eggs were also destroyed. One adult bird was shot while another was clubbed to death with a baseball bat. Another was found dead with a fish hook in its mouth. Two disappeared without a trace, presumably taken by somebody with a taste for swan flesh.
Despite such losses, by the early 1970s, there were 40 birds, and the city was looking around for solutions to limit their numbers; forty birds was deemed to be the maximum the Rideau River could accommodate. This gave rise to an interesting problem. Would it be a case of lèse majesté to dispose of some swans?
After consulting the British High Commissioner and the Governor General, both of whom didn’t have an answer, the question was resolved by the Lord Chamberlain of England. His answer was there was no problem if the city gave swans away to good homes. However, such birds could not be designated as royal gifts. The Queen herself suggested that only two eggs be left in each nest.
Despite concerns about swan numbers, Ottawa acquired a pair of black Australian swans (Cygnus atratus) in July, 1974. The source of the birds and the rationale for acquiring them are a bit murky. According to the City of Ottawa’s website, the birds came from the Montreal Zoo in an exchange. However, contemporary newspaper reports say they came to Ottawa in a trade with Wallaceburg, Ontario. These birds do not carry the “Royal” designation as they were not a gift from the Crown.
By the early 1990s, City Council, looking for cutbacks in an age of austerity, considered eliminating the city’s swans, and in the process saving some $37,500 or more per year in winter maintenance, a cost that had increased ten-fold since 1967 due partly to inflation and partly to the increase in the swan population. One city official jokingly suggested that Ottawa host a big barbecue.
After receiving hundreds of letters in support of the birds, City Council instead agreed to reduce their numbers to save money.
A few years later, City Council again tried to eliminate the swans. Jim Watson, a city alderman at the time, called the swans “a frill.”
Fortunately for swan lovers, the high-tech company Cognos stepped up in early 1996, providing $26,300 to cover that year the maintenance costs of 22 white Royal swans and 5 black Australian swans. The company continued to pay for the swans’ maintenance until 2007. The following year, IBM, which had taken over Cognos, stepped in and contributed $300,000 in a lump sum for the maintenance of the birds.
About the same time, concerns were raised about deteriorating conditions at the swan house at the Leitrim Tree Sanctuary. Although called “Swantanamo Bay” by some wags after the notorious U.S. military and prison camp in Cuba, the Ottawa Humane Society said the unsightly facility did not pose a “significant health or safety risk” to the birds.
With IBM funds devoted to the annual maintenance of the birds, the city looked into building replacement quarters for the birds. With the estimated cost approaching $500,000, the idea of building a new swan house was quickly shelved. When the Leitrim facility finally closed in 2015, the birds were sent to winter quarters at Parc Safari in Hemingford, Quebec under a two-year arrangement costing roughly $30,000 per year.
Typically, the swans are released back into the Rideau River in late May, however, in 2017, the swans, now a much reduced group of eight, six Royal mute swans and two black Australian swans, were released in late June owing to high water conditions prevailing earlier in the spring. Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Diane Deans officiated at the event held at Brantwood Park at the end of Clegg Street.
Ottawa’s Royal swans made it through 2017, Canada’s sesquicentennial year (and the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s gift), but in 2019, city council voted 20-2 to give the remaining four royal mute swans and one Australian black swan to Parc Safari in Hemingford. Apparently, their numbers had been affected by predation by coyotes. The aging birds were also being stressed by moving back and forward from Hemingford to Ottawa.
As of June 2020, two white mute swans continue to glide gracefully down the Rideau Canal at Smiths Falls. The two swans are named the Colonel and Esther in honour of Colonel By, the supervising engineer of the canal, and Esther, his second wife.