By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Swans given as a gift by Queen Elizabeth have overrun a Florida town, BBC News reported. The population of birds has exploded since they arrived in 1957 and will be sold via raffle for $400 apiece. Swans’ plumage is lovely and aids in flight.
According to BBC News, a gift from the Queen of England has become too much of a good thing. “A Florida city is selling dozens of its beloved swans to the public, after birds donated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 led to overpopulation,” the article said. “Swans have lived in Lakeland, Florida, since 1923, according to the city, but by 1953 had all been eaten by alligators or fallen prey to dogs.
“A Lakeland woman who was living in England at the time wrote to the Queen to ask for a gift of swans. The given pair bred, and now 36 mute white swans are being sold.”
Swans are known for their attractive feathers, which are not only a sight to behold but also make flight possible. Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, who was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, taught a lecture series for The Great Courses about birds. This article contains material he taught from that series.
According to Dr. Fleury, feathers make up as much as 7% of a bird’s body weight.
“A bird’s feathers may weigh two to three times as much as its skeleton,” he said. “Songbirds typically have 2,000 to 4,000 feathers; the tundra swan has about 25,000 feathers. Feathers did not evolve so birds could fly. They evolved as insulation for warm-blooded dinosaurs.”
However, although feathers primarily function as aids in flight and insulation, they have many other uses. For example, feathers communicate species identity and are used in courtship displays and territorial displays. Dr. Fleury said feathers provide camouflage, can be used to make sound and receive sounds, and even show rank.
In Love and War
When it comes to romance, feathers’ appearances aren’t the only way that plumage helps turn a pair of birds into lovebirds.
“The common nighthawk uses its flight feathers to make sounds to impress the female—the male flies to a great height, so high you can hardly see him, and then he plunges to the ground, pulling out at the last second,” Dr. Fleury said. “His primary flight feathers make a loud, distinct whooshing roar as they vibrate.”
Additionally, feathers provide mechanical protection against the wind and water.
“They also provide sensory functions, like the sensitive bristles around the mouths of nightjars,” Dr. Fleury said. “Or the highly modified filoplumes, which are embedded in sensory corpuscles in the skin. They sense the position of the surrounding feathers as they are bent back and forth.”
One of the strangest and most surprising uses of feathers is for defense. Dr. Fleury said that a few kinds of bird, including the pitouhui, have toxic feathers. The pitouhui is a genus of bird from New Guinea with bright orange and black feathers that are poisonous—”probably from some dietary source,” he said.
Proceeds from the Lakeland swans will go toward their annual feeding budget of approximately $10,000.
This article contains material taught by Dr. Bruce E. Fleury. Dr. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a BA from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an MA in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. His career as a college reference librarian led him to Tulane University, where he became head of the university library’s Science and Engineering Division. He went on to earn an MS and a PhD in Biology, both from Tulane.