WINDSOR, England — The white, long-necked swan gliding along the River Thames looks serene, but his life is full of danger. If the sharp-toothed mink don’t get him or his brood, then floods, fish hooks or hooligans with air rifles might.
Fortunately, he has a powerful ally — Queen Elizabeth II.
One of the British monarch’s many titles is Seigneur of the Swans — Lord of the Swans — and by ancient tradition she owns all mute swans found in Britain’s open waters. In practice, she only exercises that right along the Thames, and every year she sends a flotilla of emissaries in rowing boats to count, measure and check the condition of her flock.
Known as swan upping, the five-day census is a uniquely British mix of ceremony and science that has been taking place since the 12th century.
Still, one major aspect of the census has changed.
“In those days, it was all about food,” said David Barber, who wears a scarlet jacket and a white swan feather in his nautical cap and bears the glorious title of Queen’s Swan Marker. “It was a very important food served at banquets at feasts. Today swan upping is all about conservation and education.”
Swans are now protected by law and no longer risk being turned into supper, but they still face many hazards, from mink and foxes to dogs, vandals and overhead power cables. Urban sprawl has also encased stretches of riverbank in concrete, endangering the birds’ nesting sites.
“You could make (the river) more user-friendly for swans,” said Chris Perrins, an Oxford University professor who holds the post of Her Majesty’s Swan Warden. “I’d like to see more of an attempt to increase the number of possible nesting sites. But the water itself is getting cleaner.”
On the first day of the census Monday, the “swan uppers” — those who lift the swans out of the water — made their way upstream in wooden rowing skiffs between banks overhung by willows and chestnut trees.
When a group of cygnets was spotted, an oarsman shouted “All up!” and the boats surrounded the family of birds. Two adults and seven fluffy gray young were quickly hauled ashore, weighed, measured and tagged. Within minutes they were back in the water, flustered but unhurt.