British queen's "Swan Uppers" scour River Thames for birds

Tue Jul 19, 2011 1:28pm EDT
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By Alice Baghdjian

(Reuters Life!) - Scarlet-clad emissaries of Britain's Queen Elizabeth began paddling southern England's sprawling River Thames this week in search of swans for the ancient tradition of "swan upping."

The annual royal census of swans on the Thames, which dates from the 12th century when the English crown claimed ownership of all mute swans and the birds were considered a delicious dish, takes place during the third week of July every year.

Her Majesty's "Swan Marker" and his team of "Swan Uppers," identifiable by their scarlet uniforms, weigh and measure cygnets to determine growth rates. The "Swan Warden" checks the swans for signs of disease and injury before ringing the birds with individual identification numbers and releasing them.

A procession of six traditional rowing skiffs travel stretches of the Thames over five days, passing through the southern English counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Schools from local areas along the river are invited to watch each year.

"The Swan Marker and Swan Uppers will be meeting several schools during their five-day journey up river during which we talk to the children about The Queen's ownership of mute swans and the history associated with it. We also discuss the mute swan's habitat and life cycle in a continuing attempt to raise their awareness of, and interest in, wildlife," Swan Marker David Barber said in a press release.

The Swan Upping report, compiled at the end of the census, provides data on the number of swans accounted for including broods and cygnets. This information is used for the maintenance of the population.

The presence of disease in the swans will be monitored particularly closely this year after an outbreak of duck virus enteritis, a virus which has affected the mute swan population of the Thames. Fewer cygnets are expected on the river this year as a result, Barber said.

"Last Winter more than 180 swans were found either dying or dead on the river between Reading and Windsor, with over 115 deaths being reported in the Windsor area alone," Barber said.   Continued...

<p>A swan is caught by the Queen's Swan Uppers during the annual Swan Upping ceremony on the River Thames between Shepperton and Windsor in southern England July 19, 2010. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor</p>