What’s in a Name? The Swans of Swanton Are Not the Whole Story | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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What’s in a Name? The Swans of Swanton Are Not the Whole Story

State of the Arts


Published August 21, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.


Let’s get the prosaic history out of the way first. Swanton, the Franklin County town 38 miles north of Burlington and eight miles south of the Canadian border, is named for British naval officer William Swanton. He was a hero in a key battle against French colonial forces in 1758. Swanton was duly honored through the naming of the town when it was chartered five years later.

The poetic version of history is far more interesting. It holds that Swanton is a contraction of Swan Town, named for the swans that live there to this day. This fallacy — which, sadly, is what it is — gained currency in 1961 when Queen Elizabeth II of England approved the transfer of a pair of swans to Swanton.

Harry Gibbons, a Montréal PR agent who had a summer camp in Swanton, arranged the gift in advance of the town’s bicentennial. Fittingly, the swan couple came from a wildlife trust in Norfolk, an English county whose borders hold a village called Swanton Abbott. Vermonters dubbed the original swans Betty (for the queen) and Sam (as in Uncle).

The original swans’ successors, still referred to as Betty and Sam (though born of different parents), live in a pond enclosed by a black wrought-iron fence on the town green. Should the couple require privacy, they can repair to a mini-mansion, complete with white wooden Doric columns, in an adjacent corner of their estate.

The three-sided shelter isn’t heated, however, which raises the question of what happens to the swans in the winter. Here resound echoes of the enigma that so troubled Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. Several times in that story, Holden inquires what becomes of the ducks in Central Park once winter arrives.

“I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over,” he tells the reader at one point. “I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”

The Central Park Conservancy receives so many queries of this sort that it has posted an explanation on its website: “Ducks can survive the cold and stay in Central Park as long as there is open water and access to the plants below for feeding. If water bodies freeze over, the waterfowl migrate south.”

What about the swans of Swanton?

Holden’s initial suspicion is correct in their case. Some guy does come in a truck and take them away as the temperature falls toward freezing.

Swanton zoning administrator Ron Kilburn, who doubles as the town’s historian, was unable to supply the name of that guy with the truck. But he did reveal Swanton’s “dirty secret”: The swans that currently grace the green for part of the year are actually rented from the guy with the truck — who, Kilburn said, lives somewhere on the Champlain Islands.

With their orange bills and downy feathers, the two long-necked birds looked awfully cute last Saturday as they swanned around their pond. They may have been preening even more than usual, because it was the 250th anniversary of Swanton’s chartering on August 17, 1763.

Looks can mislead, however.

These stately birds with queenly connections are actually mute swans, Kilburn pointed out during a history walk that was part of last Saturday’s celebration. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department lists this variety of swan as an invasive species, he noted. Indeed, the department’s website warns that Mute swans are “highly aggressive during the nesting season, and may drive away or kill native waterfowl. May also attack humans and negatively impact aquatic habitats.”

Whoa! Killer swans! And Holden’s ducks wouldn’t even hear them coming, because Mute swans are a lot less vocal than other members of the genus Cygnus.

Because they’re such nasty creatures from away, Fish & Wildlife discourages the Swanton swans from reproducing, Kilburn confided. Do officials supply Sam and Betty with birth-control devices? Swan condoms, perhaps?

Kilburn couldn’t say. And the mute swans of Swanton did not respond to Seven Days’ queries.

Footnote: The original inhabitants didn’t call the place Swanton. They named it Missisiasuk, which, according to Esther Munroe Swift’s Vermont Place Names, means “people of the great grassy meadows.” The town remains home to hundreds of descendants of those first settlers, the Missisquoi Abenaki.