Puzzle 33

John Baez

Q: Who owns all unmarked mute swans on the River Thames? And, who owns the marked ones?

A: The Queen of England owns the unmarked ones. The rest are owned by the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners. A mute swan is a species of swan, Cygnus olor:

To quote the Royal Windsor website:

The mute swan has been a much prized bird for many years. It appears to have been given Royal status in the 12th century, and thereafter, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the crown. By 1378 the office of 'Keeper of the King's Swans' was in existence and in a document entitled "The Lawes, Orders and Customs for Swans", dated 1482/3, the first law states that all swans owned by those who pay less than 5 marks a year Freehold were forefeit to the King. To own swans was, therefore, a status symbol and also provided a tasty ceremonial dish until superseded by the turkey early this century.
To prove that a swan was privately owned, a mark was made on its beak. In the past there were many different such marks, for different owners. These marks had to be registered with the King's Swan Master. Baby swans, called cygnets, were marked in an annual ceremony called swan upping:
The purpose of swan upping is to mark all new cygnets with the same mark as their parents. The method is to drive each group of swans into the bank, where the cob [father] and pen [mother] have their beaks examined to ascertain ownership, and the cygnets are then similarly marked by making nicks with a sharp knife. The Dyers and the Vintners Companies are now the only owners of private swans on the Thames, the Worshipful Company of Dyers marking theirs with a nick on one side of the beak, and the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The latter is the origin of the inn sign 'A Swan with Two Necks' (i.e. two 'nicks'). Royal swans are now left unmarked.
Swan upping continues to this day, but out of respect for the swans, the Dyers and Vintners no longer nick their beaks. The Dyers put a ring on one leg, while the Vintners put rings on both legs. Those caught by the royal Swan Marker are, ironically, left unmarked.

Here is a picture of the Swan Uppers setting off from Windsor:

Here they are measuring the cygnets' vital statistics:

You can get in trouble if you kill one of the royal swans:

Muslim jailed for killing British Queen's swan to break fast

November 23, 2006
Daily Times, Pakistan

LONDON: A Muslim man who was so hungry while fasting during Ramadan that he killed a swan to eat was jailed for two months at a court in Britain on Wednesday. Shamsu Mian (52) killed the mute swan at a boating pond in Llandudno on September 25 - only the second day of fasting in Britain. All mute swans in Britain belong to the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, a historical quirk dating from the 12th century. When challenged by police, Mian said, "I am a Muslim, I am fasting, I needed to eat". Llandudno Magistrates Court heard that Mian had blood on his shirt and white feathers in his beard. Prosecutor Jim Neary said, "When interviewed he said, 'I was hungry, I had to eat the swan so I killed it, I stabbed it. I did nothing wrong, it was just a bird, I needed to eat'." The officers told him the swan was the property of the queen and he replied, "I hate the queen, I hate this country." Judge Andrew Shaw told Mian, "You killed a swan at night. It was a cruel and reprehensible act. I don't know how it died; there seems to be some speculation that you bit it, but I accept you killed it with a knife. It is a taboo act and the only sentence I can pass is one of imprisonment." Miah had pleaded guilty to intentionally killing a wild bird and possessing a bladed article. AFP


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