Some of the evidence offered in support of the hypothesis that trumpeter swans once nested across eastern North America is worthy of detailed examination. Here we will give this evidence a close look, closer than might be possible in a published format.
In a 1992 edition of The Trumpeter Swan Society Newsletter [21(2):8] appears an article by H. G. Lumsden, an officer of the Society. Entitled “Trumpeter Swans Once Bred on the Atlantic Coast,” it purports to offer evidence that the species once nested in Nova Scotia.
This evidence consists of a sentence cited from the French explorer Dièreville, whose visit in 1699 and 1700 to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick led him to write (as Lumsden cites him) that one can “go Bird-nesting for the eggs of the Swan, wild Geese, and a thousand other birds of that character.” (Dièreville 1708. Relation of the Voyage to Port Royal in Acadia or New France. J. C. Webster, ed. The Champlain Society XX, Toronto)
On the face of it, this statement seems to confirm swan nesting in the area, and when seen in the light of Lumsden’s assertion that the tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus, the only other swan species in North America, bred only far to the north, it seems to confirm that the trumpeter swan C. buccinator was the locally nesting species. But let us take a closer look.
First, Dièreville wrote in French. Here is his statement in the original, with context that includes some subsequent remarks. It follows descriptions of wood ducks and black ducks, and a bit of verse about eagles that ends observing how dangerous it would be to try to remove their young from the nest:
Mais on peut sûrement dénicher les ouefs des Cygnes, des Outardes, des Oyes, & de mille autres Oyseaux de cette nature. Dans la saison que l’amour fait sentir ses feux à tout ce qui respire, & que les Oyseaux deviennent les premiers amoureux, ceux que j’ay marquez vont fair leurs nids dans une Isle qu’on apelle à cause de cela, l’Isle aux Oyseaux. Quand on scait à peu pres qu’ils ont pondu, on va de compagnie enlever leurs oeufs; les Oyseaux éfarouchez & troublez par tout ce qui’il y a d’hommes répandus dans l’Isle, se levent de dessus leurs nids avec de grands cris chacun à sa manière, et forment dans les airs, par leur multitude innombrable, une nuée si épaisse, que le jour en est obscurci sur toute l’ile; on dit même qu’on y voit pas le ciel. [pp 64-64 of 1885 Quebec edition, suppressed second sentence restored]
J. C. Webster, editor of the Champlain Society’s translation of this work--the version cited by Lumsden--puts this passage as follows:
But one can safely go Bird-nesting for the eggs of the Swan, wild Geese and a thousand other Birds of that character. In the season when the fires of love are felt by all living things, and Birds become the first lovers, those that I have mentioned go to make their nests on Bird Island, so called for that reason. About the time that they are known to have laid their eggs, People go there in crowds to collect them; the Birds, disturbed & frightened by the number of men scattered over the Island, rise from their nests with great cries, each according to its nature, & because of the countless multitude of them, a cloud is formed in the air; it is even said that the Sky cannot be seen. [pp 113-114]
Webster annotates “Swan” in a footnote as “the Trumpeter swan of Canada (Ganong). Used first by Cartier in 1535; mentioned by Champlain, Denys, and Le Clercq. The bird is not now found in Acadia.” He also annotates “wild Geese” as follows: “The mention of Outardes and Oies in the same sentence raises a question of identity, which the translator has preferred to avoid by including both under the designation Wild Geese.” Thus, a more accurate translation than that given by Lumsden of this important passage would be “But one can safely go Bird-nesting for the eggs of Swans, Bustards, Geese, and a thousand other birds of that character.”
Early French explorers in North America often call attention to [ line 140 of 332 (42%), character 4558 of 16329 (27%) ] “outardes” in their encounters with wetland birds. Bustards are unknown in the New World, and, as in other cases, Europeans named these birds by analogy with species familiar in Europe. We are not entirely certain what North American species is involved in every case of the use of the word. Otis, translator of Champlain’s Voyages for The Prince Society in 1882 (Vol 12, pp 48-49) cites numerous uses of the word, and concludes that only the brant Branta bernicla could have been meant, rather than the three other species of goose native to the region. Nearly all other authorities, however, differ in regarding it as the Canada goose Branta canadensis. Whoever is right, it is clear that Dièreville identifies not one but two species of North American geese, along with the swans, as victims of nest-hunters.
As it happens, Dièreville, describes “outardes” just a few pages previous thus: “on n’y pouvoit tirer à son aise que lorsque les Outardes quittent le Nord, & passent par bandes aller au Sud; & quand elles reviennent du Sud pour retourner au Nord. Elles passent dans le mois de Novembre, & repassent dans le mois de May. Je ne fis pourtant pas un grand abatis de ce Gibier; c’étoit dommage, car les Outardes sont bonnes & presque aussi grosses que des Cignes: Elles sont de la couleur de nos Oyes sauvages; la différence qu’il y a entr’elles, c’est qu’elles ont le col violet & des plaques blanches aux deus côtez de la tête.” (p.104 Rouen edition). The Champlain Society edition translates it thus: “One can only shoot in comfort when the Wild Geese leave the North, & pass over in flocks, on their way South, & when they return from the South on their way North. They go in the month of November, & they come back in the month of May. I did not, however, make a great killing of the Game, which was a pity, for Wild Geese are good, & almost as large as Swans. They are the same color as our Wild Geese, & the difference between is that these have a purple neck & white patches on either side of the head.“The description is not perfect, but he seems to be describing the Canada goose here. He is also clearly describing a bird of passage, not a local nester whose eggs could be robbed.
In fact, there is no evidence that any of the four species of North American geese — brant, Canada goose, greater white-fronted goose, and snow goose — has ever nested in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, except in quite recent times when there are a few nestings recorded for Canada goose. There are further problems with the statement, for Dièreville goes on to place the nests of these swans and various geese, “those that I have mentioned,” on Bird Island, then describes an egging expedition, typical of the era, to a coastal island. Webster, in a note to the passage, is unable to locate this “Isle des Oyseaux,” and Dièreville may be misremembering here. In any event, he seems to be describing a dense population of colonial seabirds — cormorants, alcids, gannets, gulls and terns, etc. — extremely unlikely companions for nesting swans or geese, and an island off the coast — an equally unlikely site for swans’ and geese’s nests, with their very different habitats and territorial requirements. Nowhere do swans and geese nest so densely that disturbed nesters would obscure the sky.
Dièreville was a fair naturalist, and a fairly scrupulous reporter, but in this case he either was carried away by a flight of fancy, failed to recall important details, or the text is corrupt. In any event, it is unwise to use this tiny, dubious statement to alter so radically our understanding of the former breeding range of C. buccinator. Finally, however, Lumsden concludes his remarks by saying, “The coastal marshes of the Bay of Fundy, periodically inundated with sea water and with safe nesting sites among the litter of driftwood and wrack driven beyond high-tide mark by unusual storms, would have been good nesting areas for both Trumpeters and Canada Geese.” There is no evidence that trumpeter swans choose to nest in tidal salt marshes; they are freshwater breeders, and tend to avoid saltwater even in migration and winter.
John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) is a basic text in the history of colonial America. A work of great charm, its extensive remarks on the native American tribes of the area show a respect and understanding rare among Europeans of the day. Lawson was a careful observer and scrupulous reporter, and his writing is remarkably free of the wild exaggerations commonly encountered in explorers’ tales.
Lawson was deeply interested in the natural history of the area, and his remarks on swans are often cited as demonstrating his considerable talents as an observer: “Of the Swans we have two sorts: the one we call Trompeters, because of a trompeting Noise they make. These are the largest sort we have, which come in great Flocks in Winter, and stay, commonly, in the fresh Rivers till February, that the Spring comes on, when they go to the Lakes to breed. A Cygnet, that is, last Year’s Swan, is accounted a delicate Dish, as indeed it is. They are known by their Head and Feathers, which are not so white as Old ones. The sort of Swans call’d Hoopers, are the least. They abide more in the Salt-Water, and are equally valuable, for Food, with the former. It is observable, that neither of these have a black Piece of horny Flesh down the Head, and Bill, as they have in England.”
Other than as an entry in an earlier list of species, this is Lawson’s only specific reference to trumpeter swans. Most readers find the passage remarkable for its perceptive distinctions among three swan species, especially in view of the fact that it was to be more than 120 years before the trumpeter swan’s formal description for science. Some regard it as testimony that the species wintered in Carolina and returned elsewhere to nest. Proponents of a much larger ancestral breeding range for this species, however, seize upon the clause “when they go to the Lakes to breed” as all the proof needed to include the Carolinas in the trumpeter’s former breeding range. Let us look more closely at this last assumption.
Lawson mentions swans eight times in the work. Other than the two above specific mentions of trumpeter swans, he brings up swans as food near Bulls Island, S.C. on 2 January, flocks of swans on the Yadkin River later that month, swans as food again in January, swans as food in December, a trivial mention of “Swan-Shot” as ammunition, and “swan” as an entry in a dictionary of Indian languages. He does not mention “Hoopers” other than in the passage cited above. All of Lawson’s reported swan sightings occurred during the winter, when both species were present. Never does Lawson recount an observation of swans of either species in the nesting season.
But what of the lakes he mentions? Why would Lawson mention lakes if he didn’t have specific ones in mind? Lawson never describes actually visiting a lake in his travels, even though much of his transportation was via water. He does allude to “Percoarsons” (pocosins) from time to time, as dry depressions or wooded swamps in the landscape. When he does speak of them, lakes are evoked as distant, and outside his direct experience. At one point he states that flooding “is suppos’d to proceed from the overflowing of fresh Water-Lakes that lie near the Head of this River [the Santee],” This is mistaken, as the annotator of the University of North Carolina edition points out, but Lawson is customarily scrupulous in denying direct experience by saying “suppos’d.” Elsewhere he imbues far-off lake country with mystery, and is again careful to deny direct observations: “I have been inform’d by the Indians, that on a Lake of Water towards the Head of Neus River [again, it seems there was no such lake], there haunts a Creature, which frightens them all from Hunting thereabouts. They say, he is the Colour of a Panther, but cannot run up Trees; and that there abides with him a Creature like an Englishman’s Dog, which runs faster than he can, and gets his Prey for him…The Certainty of this I cannot affirm by my own Knowledge, yet they all agree in this Story.”
Another of his few uses of the word “lakes” involves second-hand stories of fabulous creatures, and again in lakes unvisited by Lawson: “…we are told by the Indians, of a great many strange and uncouth shapes and sorts of Fish, which they have found in the Lakes laid down in my Chart. However, as we can give no further Account of these than by Hear-Say; I proceed to treat of the Shell-Fish…”
Lawson’s chart, with the exception of careful detail for coastal settlements in Pamlico Sound, is considered sketchy and derivative. Only one feature is labeled “Lake,” and it seems to be located in the Camden, S.C. area, but it is impossible to be certain as it includes very few details.
For present purposes, the most enlightening use of the word “lakes” comes only a few pages after the cited passage on swans, in the account of another bird species: “The Blue-Wings are less than a Duck, but fine Meat. These are the first Fowls that appear to us in the Fall of the Leaf, coming then in great Flocks, as we suppose, from Canada, and the Lakes that lie behind us.”
Again, Lawson reports accurately the arrival of migrant teal, making sure to tell us he only supposes they had departed from Canada and the lakes. He again explicitly denies first-hand experience with the lakes mentioned, and we know large flocks of blue-winged teal did not breed in the Carolinas.
Let us propose a different interpretation of Lawson’s meaning of the “lakes” from which migrant birds came to Carolina. An educated Englishman of his day would have read accounts of explorers in the interior vastness of North America, with their stories of endless forests and chains of huge lakes or “sweet oceans,” as well as unimaginably huge hordes of waterfowl, but these distant realms would have had a semi-legendary quality for a distant inhabitant of England, or even the coastal Carolina colony. Lawson’s sojourn to the Carolinas took place only three years after Hennepin published his wildly popular account of LaSalle’s passage through the Great Lakes in search of the mouth of the Mississippi. Lawson, in the Preface to his work, praises the French for “always send[ing] abroad some of their Gentleman in Company of their Missionaries, who, upon their Arrival, are order’d out into the Wilderness, to make Discoveries…” Quite possibly the imagination of the young Lawson was fired by their reports. Indeed, the Great Lakes, as presented in Hennepin’s extravagantly embellished descriptions, or in the soberer ones of Jesuit missionaries from earlier decades, must have seemed a conceivable source of the multitudes of ducks, geese, and swans that arrived from the north to winter in Carolina.
John Brickell, whose The Natural History of North-Carolina (1737) was only one of several contemporary works consisting in part of plagiarism of Lawson, nevertheless presented a great deal of his own work. A physician who practiced for years in Edenton, North Carolina, he embellishes Lawson’s accounts with his own experience—he includes many pages of original work on Indians of the region, for example—and adds his own knowledge of herbal and animal remedies to the natural history accounts. His account of swans is more detailed, though still largely derived from Lawson’s. Here he says: “The Swans, whereof there are two sorts. The first are called the Trumpeters, from a trumpeting sort of noise they make, and are the largest sort of Swans in these parts. They come here in the Winter, and remain with us ‘till February, in such great Flocks, that I never saw more of any Waterfowl in all my Travels than of them, for at that Season, they are in such vast Numbers on each side of the fresh Water Rivers and Creeks, that at a distance it seems to be land covered with Snow. About Christmas they are frequently so fat, that some of them are scarce able to fly. In Spring they go to the Northern Lakes to breed. I have several times eat of them, and do prefer them before any Goose, for the goodness and delicacy of their Meat, and especially a Cygnet, or last years Swan. These Swans are larger than any I have seen in Europe. Their Quills and Feathers are in great request amongst the Planters. As to their Flesh and Parts, they have the same Virtues with that of the Geese.”
The freely-added detail, emphasized in italics in the original, that the “Lakes” lay to the north is one that must be explained by those who suppose they were in the Carolinas.
The first public assertion that Lawson’s testimony verified the trumpeter swan as a breeder in the Carolinas appears in a paper, circulating in typescript by 1978 and for twenty years thereafter until its publication by The Trumpeter Swan Society, by Philip M. Rogers and Donald A. Hammer, “Ancestral Breeding and Wintering Ranges of the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) in the Eastern United States.” As regards the Lawson testimony as well as in other aspects, this paper’s hypotheses have been uncritically accepted by swan enthusiasts as established truth. In order to do its arguments justice, we quote the entirety of its section devoted to Lawson, and interpolate commentary in bold and in square brackets: “The expansion of the colonial population resulted in two distinct groups of reports from the period 1600-1831. The earlier group, from the East Coast, includes the only generally accepted reference to a population of C. buccinator in the region. [it is not generally accepted that this population was a breeding one; if the authors mean another sort of population, Lawson’s is far from being the only reference] This frequently cited volume is the work of John Lawson (1709) concerning the English colony of Carolina. Lawson said: [Rogers and Hammer here reproduce the passage cited above]. Early accounts of the Carolina Colony, including modern North and South Carolina, agree on the frequency of “ricelands” and the enormous numbers of waterfowl. [whenever determinable, these accounts are of wintering waterfowl] Catesby (1731) [who mentions “wild swans” once, without elaborating species or dates] and Bartram (van Doren 1928} [who includes “swans” only in his list of wintering migrants from far to the north] in particular recorded South Carolina as an extension of North Carolina [actually the Carolina colony extended—and was so mapped by Lawson -- to south of St. Augustine, thus encompassing parts of present-day Georgia and Florida], yet the ancestral wintering range presented by Bellrose and by Palmer is limited to the northern half of North Carolina. Indeed, Lawson recorded swans [Lawson does not specify the species; no evidence establishes these birds were trumpeters] at Bulls Island, South Carolina, and on the Yadkin River in January 1701 [ditto]. The early spring in that year suggests that Lawson observed a normally occurring population rather than birds forced south by bad weather. [indeed, Lawson is one authority for the inclusion of South Carolina in the accepted winter range of the tundra swan]
“The general accuracy of Lawson’s description, his travels in the interior, and his frontier home make it obvious that he was familiar with the animals and plants he described. It is thus suggestive that Lawson described C. buccinator as nesting on the “lakes.” If we credit Lawson with direct observation [an assumption not justified by the evidence] and accept contemporary accounts of the habitat (including Lawson’s) [even so, there is no evidence Lawson was referring to lakes in Carolina], we may postulate a breeding population of C. buccinator in the coastal region of Carolina [Lawson does not locate these lakes near the Carolina coast]. Suitable habitat can be found in the Carolina Bays (Wharton 1978, Justus 1978), a series of lakes distributed over an area of 65,000 Km² along the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida (Cole 1975). This postulated C. buccinator population would have been exterminated before 1800. [what evidence exists for this population from 1701-1800?] It should be noted that Hornaday’s (1913) correspondents reported C. buccinator as an extinct species in Georgia, and though the basis for this report is unknown, the other reports cited [?] suggest that it may have some validity.
“Lawson’s other “sort of Swans call’d Hoopers” are plainly C. columbianus, and his comment about “a black Piece of horny Flesh” refers to the mute swan (C. olor). It is a reflection of Lawson’s ability that he distinguished three of the five species of northern hemisphere swans. Few of the colonial reports, however, show any evidence of such distinction. Beauchamp Plantagenet (1618) reported “Swans, Hoopers, Geese, Ducks, Teles, and other Fowles” at the colony of New Albion in upper Delaware Bay. Unfortunately, Plantagenet failed to give any indication of the season [but he does: the presence of geese, ducks, teal, etc., strongly suggests a period outside the breeding season at this latitude]. William Barrett (1610), reporting on Virginia, cited the former governor of the colony, Thomas Gates, as saying, “The rivers from August, or September, till February, are covered with flocks of Wildfoule: as Swannes, geese, ducks, teal,…” clearly indicating the season and migratory habit, but not distinguishing species of swans or indicating breeding habitat. [it reveals very little else indeed, and reporting these species on Virginia rivers in August doesn’t inspire confidence in his reliability] The same is true of Hilton (1664): “…and as the Indians say, in Winter with Swans, Geese, Cranes,…” [the context of Hilton’s remarks makes it clear these waterfowl were not present at the time, and his evidence for their presence in winter is hearsay] Comparable [comparably untrustworthy or inconclusive?] reports document the presence of swans along the entire Atlantic coast during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. [this statement requires evidence; we are aware of no reliable reports of swans south of South Carolina during the period]
“Interpretation of these colonial reports requires that several points be considered. First, the people writing the reports were familiar with swans in Europe and seldom described in detail animals which were common in the home Country. Hence, the usual passing mention accorded the swans of North America. [perhaps, but there are no reports, however lacking in detailed description, of swans of any sort in breeding season in the region] Second, the majority of the early authors, like their colonies, were restricted to the coastal region by low population density [wouldn’t low density imply wide dispersal?], Indians [explorers of the day relied heavily on help from Indians], and unexplored wilderness [begs the question, saying people weren’t exploring the wilderness because they were surrounded by unexplored wilderness]. Reports of the interior, like those of Lawson (1709) and Catesby (1731) are rare [why are there no reports from the people who must have been present during the extermination of the swans “before 1800”?]. Third, most travel to the New World was deliberately scheduled for arrival in the fall and winter to avoid the disease-ridden summer months [for the crews perhaps, but far more people lived there year-round], particularly in the Southeast where malaria and yellow fever were endemic and smallpox flourished. The final point concerns the migratory behavior of the species recorded. Reports of migratory bird arrival and departure dates are in agreement with modern observations, but no information is given on the distance or direction of migration or the destination [parsimoniously, wouldn’t this lack of information arise because the breeding grounds were far from the Atlantic coast?]
“Consideration of these points and the earlier discussion of the migratory behavior of C. buccinator supports the possibility of C. buccinator wintering in easily observed flocks on the rivers and dispersing into the interior, east of the Appalachian mountains [where is the evidence for locating this area east of the Appalachians?], to breed. The season when C. buccinator breeds, the general restriction of the early colonists to coastal estuaries, and the elusiveness of nesting waterfowl would combine to produce relatively few [are there any?] observations of nesting swans. Reported observations would be fewer, for reasons discussed. [again, parsimony demands that we assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, there were no swans because there were none to report].”
The assertion of a Carolina breeding population of trumpeter swans rests on no direct evidence, but rather on selective interpretations, unwarranted inferences, and speculations, guided by what seems to be wishful thinking. Rogers and Hammer, it is true, avoid direct assertion, repeatedly using the word “postulation” to describe their hypotheses, and locutions such as that the evidence “supports the possibility of” their suppositions. They summarize their reasoning by saying, “Evidence has been presented (summarized in Figure 2) to support postulations of breeding populations of C. buccinator in Florida, the Carolinas, Ohio, and the Lower Mississippi Valley…the evidence currently available is limited by a variety of factors, but we anticipate that additional evidence will become available with continued archaeological and paleontological field efforts with further publication and republication of manuscripts and volumes of historical significance.”
No additional evidence has come to light, despite the passage of 23 years since those words were written. Instead, overweening swan enthusiasts have treated Rogers and Hammer’s tentative hypotheses as confirmed beyond doubt. This is surely an unwise step. Even Rogers and Hammer fail to include the Carolinas in their Figure 4, a map which proposes wholesale enlargements of the ancestral range of trumpeter swans in the east. In their summary, the authors cite evidence “summarized in Figure 2” in support of the Carolina breeding hypothesis. Figure 2 features three black dots in the Carolinas. That numbered “30” is said to indicate a historical sighting report from Lawson (1709), and appears to be in or near the present-day city of Jacksonville, N.C.; to what report of Lawson’s it refers it is difficult to say, especially since Lawson cites no precise location for trumpeter swans. Two black dots, both (perhaps in error) numbered “29,” refer to Lawson 1701 (1709) [?]. One seems close to the area where Lawson reported “swans” of unspecified species in salt water near Bulls Island, S.C. in January. The other dot numbered “29” seems to be in North Carolina, about 200 miles west of the Outer Banks, perhaps in the vicinity of the present Uwharrie National Forest, though nothing in Lawson’s work refers to this location. The whole matter seems unsatisfactorily resolved, but that has unfortunately not prevented Carl D. Mitchell, author of the account for trumpeter swan in the respected Birds of North America series, as well as other officers of The Trumpeter Swan Society, from citing Rogers and Hammer in sole support of statements that the species’ former breeding range extended “south to Carolinas.” There hangs by such a slender thread their proposed extension, by over 500 miles, of the established breeding range of the trumpeter swan.