Swans are the largest living members of the waterfowl family and fossil records of the genus Cygnus date back to the late Miocene epoch which means they have been on earth for well over 5 million years. They were swimming in ‘our’ rivers before gorillas had even evolved and long before Australopithecus, let alone more modern women and men had appeared. Fossil records of prehistoric swans found on Mediterranean islands reveal a bird that was 2 metres long from beak to tail – which makes it bigger than the local dwarf elephants that were also around at the time!
It comes as no surprise that these magnificent creatures have filled mythology and legend through the ages and swans hold a special place in many cultures; including stories of Norse swan maidens and the holy, pure birds that drank from the Well of Urd in Asgard, the home of the gods. Helen of Troy was described in Greek mythology as being conceived by Leda and Zeus who was disguised as a swan and the Irish legend of The Children of Lir is about a stepmother who transforms her children into swans for 900 years. The swan’s beauty and tendency to mate for life has captivated the imaginations of people and they symbolise elegance, true love, and longevity.
I can’t discuss the role of swans in storytelling without mentioning that most famous of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales ‘The Ugly Duckling’. This tale describes the trials and tribulations of a young swan hatched from an egg in a duck’s nest. Most of us are familiar with the story of how the young swan was humiliated and mistreated for being different until in the end he left and tried to find a place where he could belong and be accepted. Sadly he couldn’t find a place to fit in while he was still young; whether that was with the wild ducks and geese, the old woman and her cat or the farmer and his noisy children, so in the end he hid in a cave next to a frozen lake for the winter. When the swans arrived in spring, the now fully grown duckling decided he could not live a life of solitude any longer and threw himself to the mercy of the swans, expecting to be rejected, but as we all know, he was immediately recognised as one of them and when he saw his reflection in the lake he realised that he too was a beautiful swan.
There are many critiques and much analysis of this popular fairy tale and it has been said that the story may be autobiographical. Hans Christian Anderson is described in a biography by British journalist Anne Chisholm as such: “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theatre he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”. Speculation also suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark). It is said, but certainly not proven, that he found this out some time before he wrote the story, and that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage. Hans Christian Anderson is often described as being on the autistic spectrum and whilst the word autism wasn’t in use during his lifetime (1805-1875), it has certainly always existed as a type of neurodivergence (or difference in brain neurology such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD amongst others). It feels safe to assume that the author clearly understood how it felt to be different and it draws up some interesting questions about how belonging and fitting in can be so difficult for people.
Christa Holmans is a business professional from Texas who blogs as ‘The Neurodivergent Rebel’ (She is rebelling against a culture that values assimilation over individuality, if you were wondering). Christa is happy for me to use her quote and I think it sums up the story beautifully: “The ugly duckling grew up believing – falsely – that he was an ugly or defective duck. Eventually the “duckling” learned he wasn’t a duck at all. In the end, the duckling was a perfectly “normal” “average” swan and this knowledge set him free.”
This also ties in nicely with the thoughts of social scientist and author Brené Brown (she has the fourth most-watched TED Talk of all time. It’s called “the power of vulnerability” and it has nearly 31 million views.) “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in”.
Brown says that when we “fit in” as opposed to “belong,” we acclimatise to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self.
So how did the ugly duckling not know that he was actually a swan, I wonder? How do any of us ‘know’ that we are human or what our gender or sexuality or opinions are? What seems like an obvious question to start with is actually extremely complex when you explore what identity is. There is an interplay of many complicated themes such as attachment, personality, free will and conditioning and the whole nature-nurture debate.
In the animal world, some birds don’t innately recognise their parents or even their own species. They will use environmental cues to identify and attach themselves to a parent figure. This type of imprinting happens shortly after birth and the parent figure does not even need to be the same species. It is called filial imprinting. This type of imprinting tends to take place in precocial birds (otherwise known as nidifugous birds) – they are developed enough to leave the nest and feed when they are very young, so the ability to identify a parent that will keep them safe is important for survival. There are other types of imprinting: sexual imprinting, where an animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate and limbic imprinting, where very early experiences contribute to lifelong psychological development. I remember watching cartoons as a child and filial imprinting was a fairly common topic, with hilarious consequences.
These cartoons are from a time when behaviourism was a very dominant school of psychology and it was widely viewed that behaviour is influenced by the environment and you can pretty much train anyone to do anything if you punish or reward them hard enough. Less emphasis was placed on internal mental, emotional or sensory states. The 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘That’s My Mommy’ is a fine example. A baby duckling imprints on Tom the cat and develops an attachment to him as its mother. Despite Tom’s far-fetched schemes to cook and eat the young bird, the duckling continues to love Tom and see him as his mother, and violently reject Jerry’s attempts at rescue. The cartoon ends with Tom setting up an elaborate plot to cook the duckling in a pan on the stove top. The poor bird is so attached to its mother figure that it tearfully walks up a spoon and attempts to plunge itself into the boiling pot – but at the last minute, Tom has a change of heart and grabs the duckling and they go outside and the cartoon ends with a view of Tom swimming in the pond with his young charge happily copying his every move whilst saying ‘that’s my mommy’.
Humans have exploited filial imprinting in birds to create fantastic wildlife documentaries where they have been able to fly in hang gliders alongside great flocks of geese. They have also used imprinting as part of conservation projects to teach birds that were bred in captivity how to fly and follow migratory routes. Imprinting has also been used to ‘prove’ that chickens can count! I’m not sure why this is important and I hope that scientists aren’t trying to create a master race of maths genius chickens. It is known that the chicks of domestic chickens prefer to be near large groups of objects that they have imprinted on – safety in numbers perhaps? In a series of experiments, the chicks were made to imprint on plastic balls and could work out which of two groups of balls hidden behind screens had the most balls in it.
Alongside imprinting, attachment also takes place. This is the important process of forming bonds so that social and emotional development can take place. Attachment theories have changed over the years and people form different types of attachments or connections to each other. Some of these connections are reciprocal e.g. between adults, and some aren’t e.g. a baby and its care giver. Back in the days of Tom and Jerry, attachment was viewed as a learned response i.e. a baby learns (through classical conditioning) that its mother will give it milk. The baby naturally likes milk and learns to associate its mother with being fed so learns to like its mother too.
The most famous example of classical conditioning is probably Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t describe his experiment here as it is so familiar and is easy enough to research if you want more information. Instead I will tell you about a Pavolvian experiment that my dog unwittingly took part in.
Last summer my family and I were in New Quay, West Wales. We had been on the beach looking in the rock pools and had found some awesome creatures including periwinkles, shrimps and a venomous weever fish. We’d wandered back up near the harbourside to look out to sea for dolphins and to avoid the crowds that had come on holiday and/or to see Chris Packham who was there as part of his Bioblitz project around the UK. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Chris Packham also appeared to be avoiding the crowds that had come to see him and was enjoying a piece of cake in peace. We had an interesting chat and he made a big fuss of our dog Blaze and gave her some of his lemon drizzle cake. Blaze is quite spoilt and thinks that everyone should adore her and feed her. Blaze and Chris were quite taken with each other to be honest. Roll on to October and Autumnwatch on TV. Blaze is a lazy dog in the house and not at all interested in television or anything other than sleeping or occasionally raising her head if she hears a kitchen cupboard door open, just to check. She may even get up and investigate if she hears the biscuit tin lid being removed. Anyway, Chris started to introduce the programme and Blaze was bolt upright and up on the sofa watching him. He has a distinctive voice and Blaze had learned to associate it with lemon drizzle cake. She now expects to have a piece every time Chris is on the TV!
Prior to meeting Chris Packham, Blaze liked cake – we can describe the cake as an ‘unconditioned stimulus’. Blaze already had an ‘unconditioned response’ i.e. she got excited by the smell and sight of cake – this was innate, she didn’t have to learn it. She had previously seen Chris Packham on Springwatch but had shown absolutely no interest in him. Chris could be described as a ‘neutral stimulus’. By pairing Chris with the cake, Blaze now experienced him as a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and whenever she has seen him since, a ‘conditioned response’ occurs regardless of whether he has cake or not – Blaze is excited because she associates Chris Packham with lemon drizzle cake!
Of course, behavioural approaches to understanding why humans and other animals do what they do aren’t the whole picture. I remember briefly studying biology and psychology as A levels and it all seemed a bit disappointing because experiments were frequently about being horrible to my fellow living creatures in order to find out how they worked. Whether that was dissecting a frog to examine its intestines when there were plenty of amphibian anatomy diagrams readily available instead or hearing about sleep deprived cats or baby monkeys that were taken from their mothers and given a wire ‘mother’ instead to see what happened. Personally, I didn’t need to do an experiment to tell you the result. They didn’t like it and it screwed them up long term – particularly the frog! As a professional I often describe behaviour and analyse behaviour to try and work out why people do what they do (the negative things usually – or rather the things that are most annoying to other people – I frequently feel that an individual’s difficult or challenging behaviour tells you more about the person observing or being on the receiving end of it than the motives of the person exhibiting it – but that’s a topic for another article). Learned responses aren’t everything and psychology has moved on since Tom and Jerry’s days. Attachment is now recognised as far more than a learned response and innate features like biology, genetics and neurology have a major part to play too. The way living things relate to each other isn’t just based on very early experiences and I hope that means the Ugly Duckling in the story got to experience some fulfilling relationships with his fellow swans despite his early experiences.
I was delighted to see that one of my very first childhood friends was involved in some animal training herself. Moira and I lived in the same street, and attended the same playschool, primary and secondary schools. Although we live a fair way from each other these days, we are in touch via social media and I frequently feel a pang of jealousy when I see her Facebook posts. Moira works at the medieval Bishop’s palace in Wells and among her roles is my personal favourite job title – Swan Trainer. Moira’s job is to teach any new swans how to carry on the 150 year old tradition of ringing a bell by the Gatehouse for food. The old cob Bryn died in 2018 and his mate Wynn and her cygnets departed from the moat later that year, probably to set up a new home on the Somerset levels. Swans tend to mate for life and if a partner dies, like Bryn did a couple of years ago, the pen will often seek out a new mate. The palace acquired some new swans named Gabriel and Grace, from a rescue centre in South Wales and Moira’s task was to train them to be good tourist attractions and ring the bell. She did this by repeatedly feeding them at the window and ringing the bell and throwing them food. Moira slowly introduced them to the rope and they learned to ring it themselves and immediately receive food in response. The trained swans then trained their cygnets to do the same. I would love to know what approach the adult swans used to teach their youngsters and whether they feel that it is actually them conditioning Moira to throw some food whenever she hears a bell?
The swans in Wells are the UK’s only resident swan, the mute swan. These birds weigh around 10kg on average and are pretty heavy for something that can fly. The heaviest flying bird of any species on record was a male Polish mute swan that weighed 23kg (51lb). Mute swans have a reputation for aggression – I have been told “they can break a man’s arm” but have no idea of whether that’s true or not – probably not, their bones have a honeycomb type structure to make them lighter so they can fly more efficiently. They do give impressive displays when under threat and can rise up with wings outstretched and hiss and attack other creatures in order to protect their nest. This display is called busking. Swans also give a nasty bite with what feels like teeth but are in fact jagged lumps on the serrated edges of their bills that are used for catching slippery food like algae, frogs, fish and aquatic plants. Mute swans do make vocal noises but are quieter than other types of swan and they don’t call when in flight but their wings make a loud swoosh that can be heard half a mile away and is used as a form of communication.
The other two types of swan found in the UK are winter visitors – the whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Whoopers are the noisiest of the three species and have a yellow and black bill rather the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan. They are large birds that migrate from Iceland to overwinter in the UK and they are often found grazing in fields near large expanses of water. Whoopers use some very sophisticated communication including flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and shaking their necks. This is done to signal to other birds to form a flock and take flight and seems to serve a purpose for getting mates to recognise that their partners are going to take off and ensures they keep to the same flock.
The Bewick’s swan is smaller than the whooper swan and comes to the UK from northern Russia. Like the whooper it has a yellow and black bill but it has less yellow than the whooper and to my mind looks less clumsy too. The beak patterns on Bewick’s swans can be used to identify them individually and Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would sit with his family in their home at Slimbridge and paint the visiting swans. The family learned to recognise each individual bird and gave them names.
So we’ve learned how animals imprint on things and form attachments that give them a sense of identity and we know that good observers like Peter Scott and his wife and children can even tell different swans apart. So why did the Ugly Duckling not realise something as obvious as his differences? There’s an interesting theorem proposed by Japanese theoretical physicist Satosi Watanabe who was one of the fundamental thinkers on pattern recognition, and its named after the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Ugly Duckling Theorem argues that classification is not possible without some sort of bias. Basically, it shows that a duckling is as similar to a swan as two ducklings are to each other. All differences are equal unless we have some prior knowledge. It is the weighting we put on the categories we put things in that dictates what we view as a similarity. I’ll try and describe it without using complicated equations. Take these 3 objects: An orange, a banana and a ginger cat, like my favourite old tom cat Mojo. Most people would say that the banana and the orange were most similar because they are fruit. That’s because people tend to put a higher weighting on ‘fruit’ as a category than they would on say, ‘colour’. Maybe in a world where fruit is not significant, Mojo and the orange are more similar because of their colouring. If you took another category such as ‘ability to write’ then none of them would have anything in common. To try and find the similarities, you need to make more categories, and the list will be infinite and for every category where you find a similarity, there will be another where there is nothing in common. It is impossible to say which two of these three things are the most similar unless you introduce some bias about what is important to you. And that bias is totally subjective. And that is why I love the Ugly Duckling Theorem – as a lifelong pain in the backside to teachers and all-round smart arse I am thankful to Satosi Watanabe who perfectly describes my total disregard for the biased categories that people usually choose to put things in with maths! I like to think that some of the other people mentioned in this blog may enjoy the theorem too. Many autistic people are great at seeing patterns that other people don’t see and frequently find the neurotypical biases in society puzzling and baffling. Just as baffling as one of my old teachers would find it if I said a cat is more like an orange than a banana is because they’re both orange.