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Black Swans

Black Swans

The black swan, Cygnus atratus, is the symbol of the Swan River. The colony and the River were named after this bird, the latter by Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh who surveyed the river in 1696. His exploration party saw many swans, four of which were taken alive to Batavia, but died on arrival.

In reporting on their journey up the Swan River in 1827, botanist Charles Fraser described in some detail the abundant bird life around Point Fraser and the sustenance it provided:

"The quantity of black swans, ducks, pelicans and aquatic birds seen on the river was truly astonishing. Without any exaggeration, I have seen a number of black swans, which could not be estimated at less than five hundred rise at once, exhibiting a spectacle which, if the size and colour of the bird be taken into account, and the noise and rushing occasioned by the flapping of their wings, previous to their rising, is quite unique in its kind. We frequently had from twelve to fifteen of them in the boats, and the crews thought nothing of devouring eight roasted swans in a day." [28]

However, Fraser added prophetically that:

"The river abounds in fish and Black Swans, Ducks, teal, pelicans, and shags are seen in myriads – so much so that our party while on the river lived on roast swans – but from the shyness of those birds, I doubt not that at no distant period should the country be settled, there will not be a Swan to be seen, when no doubt the original discoverers will be laughed at for so apparently preposterous a name." [29]

By 1870 hunting on and around the Swan River had severely decimated the numbers of black swans. The Inquirer reported in May 1874:

"Swans, these birds which originally gave its name to our River, have long since ceased to be habitual frequenters of its waters. Occasionally some are seen, or heard flying over head; but they do not allow our citizens to get a good look at them. It is therefore a face worthy of note that on Thursday half a dozen of them were seen disporting themselves upon Melville Water for a considerable time." [30]

The Government saw the solutions as two fold. First, legislation was introduced to ban the shooting of birds and animals indigenous to the Swan River colony, including wild duck of all species, teal, emu, wild geese, bustard, swamp hen, bronze winged and other pigeons, gnow, quail, Rottnest and other snipe. The 1874 legislation sought to impose a closed season for particular game. The 1892 Game Act specified that Perth Water and the waters near Perth would be reserved for game. In introducing the bill, the Premier Sir J Forrest stated the facts:

"At present, if a duck or swan happens to show itself on these waters, many persons start off at once with a gun determined to kill it." [61]

Forrest promised to protect all native game with closed seasons (for the Swan the closed season was July to December) and to make Perth Water a reserve where shooting of any kind was prohibited. The West Australian praised the legislation, commenting that it was:

"A common sight to see boats go into the midst of the birds during their moulting and breeding season, and simply knock them on the head with no more difficulty than is experienced in killing rats in a pit." [62]

At around the same time as the proclamation relating to the Game Act, the Government released a Proclamation under the Fishery Act 1889 which banned fishing with a net or "fixed engine" from the Narrows at Mill Point to the Upper Swan bridge and from the Lower Canning to the Upper Canning Bridge, thus reserving the banks of the River in Perth for hook and line fishing.

Despite extensive lobbying from the game shooting supporters who argued that shooting must be allowed in Perth Water to keep down the shags and pelicans which were eating fish at the rate of 3000 to 4000 a day. [31] The policing of the legislation was difficult and constant but the press strongly supported the restrictions, with the West Australian arguing:

"The government will be widely supported in their resolve to restore to the Swan as many as possible of its old feathered inhabitants. One of the great wants of Western Australia is that of bird life. … . The man who covers Perth and Melville Waters with birds of all descriptions deserves a statue. They can give few more excellent gifts to the capital than the spectacle of Perth and Melville Waters, and their bays crowded with aquatic birds, reposing there in peace and contentment." [32]

The second approach was to establish swanneries to allow black swans to breed safely and to increase the numbers of swans on the River. In 1896 twenty shillings was offered for each live healthy black swan delivered to Special-Constable Rewell at Mill Point. The plan was to fence and feed the birds in Miller’s Pool and domesticate them (as well as pinion them) so that they would not leave the area when they were eventually released. It was hoped that the Swan would become the haven for swans that the Thames represented in England. The birds were fed, often by hand, a fence and shed built and visitors came to the area to see them.

Millers Pools 1813

In 1897 around 80 swans were handed to the Acclimatisation Society and over the next few years swans were bred, pinioned and then released to Perth Water, wild swans being attracted to "attend on their pinioned mates." [33]
A further swannery was established on a reserve created at Point Fraser and Government funding provided for fencing, for a caretaker’s hut and for the connection of water to the site. This project was also hailed a success but ongoing reclamation in the shallows around Perth Water saw gradual disappearance of the swan.

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Page last updated: Tuesday 23 November 2010