Question: When watching TV the other day, the announcer said this would be the singer’s “swan song.” What is a swan song? The song had nothing about swans in it. (Asked by a curious music lover.)
Reply: “Swan song” refers to an ancient legend that the swan (Cygnus olor in Latin) is completely mute during life, except for singing a beautiful, heart-rending song just before it dies. This belief is false, as an early Roman writer in 77 CE pointed out. The swan is not mute, but lacks a bugling call, instead honking and hissing on occasion.
The term has taken on the meaning of final or farewell appearance. It implies that this is the last performance of an artist’s career, usually musical or theatrical. Swan stories appear quite often in literature. A famous one is an Aesop’s fable, The Swan and the Goose. You remember Aesop, don’t you?
It goes something like this: a rich man went to the market and bought a goose and a swan. The goose was intended for the table. When the time came, the cook went to get the bird at night when it was dark. Not being able to distinguish the two birds, he caught the swan by mistake. Threatened with death, the swan burst forth in song and made itself known by its voice. In this case, the swan song saved the swan’s life.
The swan is a beautiful bird and swims majestically. They come in different colors. The northern hemisphere species is a pure white, while the southern hemisphere species is white and black. The Australian species is completely black, except for some white flight feathers on the wings. (I saw one of these in Hawaii once. Strange to see a black swan.) Young swans are called cygnets (derived from the Latin name mentioned earlier). A female swan is called a pen, and the male swan is called a cob (from cobbe, meaning “leader”).
While on birds, there’s one that came to my attention recently. It looked like it was going to rain when I went out to check the mailbox. Coming back in, I told my wife it was going to rain for sure, because I had heard a rain crow. “A what?” She had never heard of a rain crow. I remember hearing them growing up. It sounds sort of like a cross between a caw and a coo. Being curious, I investigated. The “rain crow” is a yellow-billed cuckoo: a long-tailed bird, brown above and white below. The bill is slightly curved with a yellow lower mandible. They are all over the Eastern United States. And it says right in my Audubon Field Guide to Birds: this bird’s tendency to utter its distinctive call at the approach of a storm has earned it the name “rain crow.”
So there you have it, from swans to “crows.” I guess I better get out of here before the Curiosity Corner has its swan song!
C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.