In this sample entry in the last volume of his popular six-volume History of British Birds (1851-57), the Victorian natural historian Francis Orpen Morris pays tribute to his forerunner, Thomas Bewick, and continues with sightings and shootings (fortunately, prohibited now) of the swan named after him. He then describes the devotion of one pair, the species' nature, various habits, appearance etc. The entry has been formatted for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. The image comes from the page facing the entry. You may use it without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Internet Archive and the contributing library and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Cygnus A Swan. Bewickii Of Bewick.

THE Swan thus denominated in honour of Bewick, our own Bewick, whose name must ever be associated with "British Birds," appears to be distributed over the northern parts of Europe, Asia, and America, and the islands of the Arctic Ocean. Temminck [Coenraad Jacob Temminck (1778-1858) a well-known Dutch zoologist] says that it breeds in Iceland and Siberia.

In Yorkshire, Edward Dawson, Esq., son of my friend, Gr. P. Dawson, Esq., of Osgodby Hall, near Selby, has informed me of his having shot three of these birds at a shot on Skipwith Common, about the 14th. of February, 1855. There was a flock of five, the other two were the old birds. One was shot near Bawtry; several have occurred at different times near Burlington.

In Cambridgeshire, so J. R. Little, Esq., of St. John's College, has written me word, a flock of twenty was seen on Whittlesea Wash, about the middle of March, 1855, of which three were shot. A few near Wisbeach, on the estuary of the Nene, in the middle of December, 1849. In the county of Durham, one was shot near Stockton-on-Tees, in the winter of 1850. Six are said to have been seen in January, 1830, near St. Just, in Cornwall. In March, 1845, three were shot near Somersham, and three near Grodman Chester, in the county of Huntingdon. In Norfolk they are not unfrequent in the neighbourhood of the sea, in winter. In Oxfordshire two near Oxford, in the winter of 1837-8. In Derbyshire a flock of eleven appeared on the Trent, near Melbourne, in February, 1845, and two of them were shot. In Lancashire a flock of twenty-nine, one of which was shot [157/58] at Middleton, were observed at Crumpsall, near Manchester, on the 10th of December, 1829; and again, seventy-three at the same place, on the 28th of February, 1830. The bird just mentioned, being only slightly wounded, was kept alive, and on the 23rd of March, another, a male, no doubt the same one that had been observed to remain with it at first, for some hours, after the rest of the flock had gone off, made its appearance, and after flying round and round for some time, descended to it with much apparent joy. It remained with it, and soon became accustomed to the presence of strangers, but, on the 13th of April, being alarmed by some dogs, took flight and did not return; and, on the 5th of September, the female, whose wing had by that time become sound again, also disappeared, and was seen no more.

In Ireland this Swan has been noticed pretty commonly. Several flocks were seen in January, 1836. In February, 1830, a flock of seven alighted in a field near Belfast, and two of them were secured. One was obtained in Wexford Harbour, on the 1st. of February, 1844.

In Scotland it is not uncommon in Sutherlandshire on the lochs.

They migrate southwards in October, and retire northwards again in March.

In their natural state they appear to be shy and timid, but they are, nevertheless, easily susceptible of a certain degree of domestication; they are gentle in their manners, and live amicably with other kinds.

They feed on insects and their larvae, seeds, the roots, stems, and leaves of water-plants, and worms, and swallow therewith some gravel. They wade for their food in shallow waters, immersing the head and neck for the purpose.

Their call is loud and clamorous a deep whistle, heard at a considerable distance.

The nest is reported by Captain Lyons, E.N., to be built of peat-moss, and to be nearly as much as six feet long, four feet and three quarters wide, and two feet high on the outside, the hollow one foot and a half across. Another account says that the materials used are flags, rushes, and the small boughs of willow trees; doubtless those most readily procurable are differently made use of in different places.

The eggs are of a cream white colour.

This Swan too is said to occupy six weeks in the incubation [158/59] of its eggs. Many pairs build in the same vicinity, but each pair maintain the right of private property for the time being in their own more immediate abode.

Male; length, three feet ten inches to four feet; bill, black, except only the inner portion of the upper mandible extending back to the eye, which is orange yellow: in old birds a knob arises at the base. Iris, dark chesnut. The yellowish rust-colour on the head and neck appears in some individuals of this species also. Otherwise the head, crown, neck, nape, chin, throat, breast, and back, are white.

The wings reach in expanse to the width of from six feet to six feet three inches: the second and third feathers are longer than the first and the fourth. Greater and lesser wing coverts, primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, greater and lesser under wing coverts, tail, of twenty feathers, wedge-shaped, and the tail coverts, white. Legs and toes, dull black; webs, dull black.

The young, the first year, are greyish brown. In the second year, the bill is pale yellow over the base; iris, orange. The head and the breast are much tinged with red rust-colour; on the latter it wears off soonest. The young, according to Yarrell [William Yarrell (1784-1856), another British ornithologist], have only eighteen feathers in the tail, and Selby gives this number to the adult; the point might therefore be considered as "adhuc sub judice," but the former statement seems the correct one.


Morris, Francis Orpen. A History of British Birds. Vol. 6. London: Groombridge, 1862. Internet Archive. Contributed by Tisch Library, Tufts University. Web. 2 November 2018.

Created 2 November 2018