Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 4, 1976 · Page 54
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 54

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 4, 1976
Page 54
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Page 54 article text (OCR)

Controversy Over a Swan By J. Lawrence Smith Swans have long been a symbol of grace and beauty, which is interesting for birds of such large size. A swan is in its element on the water or in the air, but on land its movements become somewhat awkward since its legs are short. The swans are the largest of waterfowl, a family of birds that also includes the ducks and geese. Five species of swans are found in the Northern Hemisphere and all are white. The mute swan is a bird of Europe while the whooper and Bewick's are found across Eurasia where they nest on the northern tundra and migrate southward to northern Europe in the west and China and Japan in the east. The other two are the whistling and trumpeter swans of North America. In the Southern Hemisphere, the black swan is found in Australia and neighboring Tasmania. It was discovered late in the 17th century by the Dutch and created a sensation when taken to Europe since all swans were assumed to be white. The black-necked swan which is white other than the head and neck is a South American species. It is found throughout most of the continent south of Brazil. The mute swan, which has a knob on the bill, was domesticated in Europe centuries ago. In the British Isles the birds were considered the property of the King. A royal official, the Swan Master, was responsible for all affairs dealing with the flocks of swans since the birds were so highly regarded. 4m CHARLESTON. W. VA. The mute swan, which is not really mute since it can make a variety of hissing and barking sounds, was brought to America long ago. It is the familiar swan of large parks a"nd estates. It has become a wild bird along the Atlantic coast from New England south to New Jersey. The whistling swan is the smaller of the two native North American species. It nests in the far north from Hudson Bay to Alaska and spends the winter along the Atlantic coast from Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina. I vividly recall watching a flock of 13 swans floating like small icebergs on the blue waters of Church Creek just off shore from Old Trinity Church on the Bay's eastern shore early one April. They would soon be leaving for the long flight northward. Its main flyways are beyond the bounds of West Virginia so it is seen only on occasion in the state. I first saw a whistling swan in 1956 while attending a football game at Nitro. During the half-time ceremonies, I happened to look up and flying overhead against the blue November sky was a swan. One spent s e v e r a l d a y s a t ' G a u l e y Bridge that same month. The whistling swan has fared far better than the trumpeter swan since the coming of man to our continent. Such a large and relatively tame bird could not easily withstand the coming of civilization. In colonial times, it nested throughout a large part of Canada and the north-central United States and migrated as far south as the Gulf Coast and southern California. The trumpeter was slaughtered mercilessly during the 19th century for its beautiful plumage and had all but vanished by 1900. At that time, the only ones that were protected were a few pairs in Yellowstone National Park. In 1935, the Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana was established as a haven for the three dozen trumpeters left in the United States outside Yellowstone (A few were still found in Canada). The population now numbers well over 2,000 birds with about half this number in Canada and Alaska. In 1964, a pleasant discovery was made when it was found that many swans in interior Alaska were trumpeters and not whistlers as assumed. It has been introduced into Oregon, Nevada, and South Dakota from the growing number in Montana. America's largest waterfowl turned up at least once in West Virginia. A trumpeter swan was shot at Letart Island. Mason Coua- ty, by Alvaro Glenn on Nov. 30, 1875. The bird was mounted, placed in a glass case and given to the state. This much can be gained from more than one early writer on the bird life of the state. From that point on the matter becomes rather confused. Later there was some doubt about whether or not the bird was a trumpeter. Years ago I learned that I. H. Johnston, once State Or- nithologist, apparently examined the specimen. He was convinced that it was a trumpeter swan. Recently I made an effort to measure the swan now in the museum at the Capitol by placing a tape measure against the glass. I found the measurement comparable for that given for the trumpeter by following the arch of the bird's neck and the length of the back. The bird was reportedly on display in the Capitol Annex when the old Capitol burned in 1921. It has been reported by more than one writer that the specimen was destroyed by fire. The swan in the Capitol museum would seem to be evidence enough that the specimen came t h r o u g h t h e o r d e a l u n scathed. The Annex later became the old Kanawha County library now the site of the National Bank of Commerce. Sidney Morgan, of Morgan's Museum fame, told me a few weeks before his death in 1973 that the swan in the museum was the one shot at Letart. He would have reason to have been acquainted with the matter since he was doing some taxidermy work for the state when the old Capitol burned. The label on the case notes that the bird was killed "September 19, 1905," but this date is highly doubtful. It seems in error for reasons other than being 30 years after the date given by various writers. September is a most unlikely time for the swan to be around since it didn't migrate until late October or early Novemb'er. Since the swan was all but gone after the turn of the century the year 1905 is also doubtful. Alvaro Glenn was a farmer most of his life and a Civil War veteran. On killing the swan, old museum records note "Mr. Glenn stood 105 feet away and hit it directly in the throat just under the head." His feat of marksmanship was to record his name in an important place in the study of bird life in the state. Glenn died and was buried in 1924 while the swan rests enclosed in the glass that, has kept its feathers almost as intensely white as the day it was brought to earth never to rise again. The swan was brought down in its prime as well as in the prime of the trumpeter swan. It sits as a stuffed and silent memento of the prairie wilderness of the American West now forever gone. With the opening of the new museum and cultural center the swan will be placed in storage. It will lose the place of prominence that it had in its cramped quarters in the basement of the capitol surrounded by the cabinets of stuffed birds of many varieties. A few persons will note with nostalgia the passing of dressed fleas, a swan specimen surrounded by mystery and misinformation and other curiosities, but the new museum will be such a welcomed addition to the capitol complex. It will house a fresh, new portrayal of the history of West Virginia -- a portrayal that all' have eagerly awaited and one that has, in many res : pects,' been too long in corriirig".' ·July 4. J976. Sunday Gazette-Mail

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