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On the Unique Experience of Eating Swans

A flock of swans standing in snow.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hunt and eat swans? It’s not something you hear about every day, and for good reason. In Western culture, hunting and eating swans is considered somewhat unconventional. While shooting a goose might result in inquiries about your cooking plans, shooting a swan often elicits the question: “Why would you want to do such a thing?” Swans simply don’t fit into the category of standard food animals like geese or ducks.

But consider this: there are many perfectly edible animals that we don’t immediately consider as food, like woodchucks. Swans, however, are different. They carry a significant amount of cultural baggage. Leviticus 11:18 even categorizes swans as “unclean.” Yet, paradoxically, swans are revered as symbols of love, appearing in stories like “Swan Lake” and “The Ugly Duckling.” They are also the national bird of Denmark. How swans transitioned from being “unclean” to symbols of romance remains a mystery.

One reason could be their visual appeal. Trumpeter and mute swans, the largest flying birds in North America, can weigh up to 33 pounds. In comparison, the tundra swans that are commonly hunted weigh just 17 pounds on average. Mute swans, with their European origins, often grace our parks. On the other hand, black swans, with their charcoal feathers and bright red bills, exude their own unique charm.

Now, I can hear you saying, “But swans mate for life!” True, they do. However, “mating for life” is not exclusive to swans; even turkey vultures exhibit this behavior. In reality, even in the bird world, monogamy isn’t always as steadfast as it seems. Nevertheless, the perception of swans as faithful creatures adds to their mystique as majestic symbols of beauty and love.

Interestingly, since my swan hunts in Utah and New Zealand, I’ve encountered fewer horrified reactions than anticipated. I suspect this is because many people have had personal experiences with mute swans in parks. For every negative reaction I’ve received, I’ve had two people recount their childhood encounters with these hissing monsters that shattered their idyllic visions of swans. It turns out that many of us have tried to feed these birds bread, only to be met with aggressive pecks.

Let’s address the legitimacy of my hunts. In Utah, obtaining a swan hunting permit requires passing a test and being fortunate enough to secure one of the limited 2,000 tags. I was lucky to be selected, but I could only harvest one bird per year. In New Zealand, where I also hunted swans, the bag limit allowed for up to five swans per day.

It’s important to note that responsible hunting practices are in place to ensure the conservation of swan populations. In Utah, for example, hunters must immediately check in their harvested swans at the local Fish and Wildlife office to verify species and compliance with regulations. The protection of trumpeter swans, which are still relatively scarce, is prioritized. If ten trumpeter swans are accidentally killed, the entire swan hunting season is shut down.

During November, around 35,000 to 50,000 tundra swans congregate on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, making it a prime time for swan hunting. When my book tour coincided with this period, I teamed up with my friends from Parkside Mansion and experienced a unique hunt. Setting out with swan decoys in thigh-deep water, we called the swans in using our voices, mimicking their distinct calls.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Contrary to popular belief, swans are not slow flyers. They create an optical illusion due to their size and the ground they cover with each wingbeat. In fact, tundra swans have been recorded flying at speeds of up to 83 miles per hour, surpassing even the swift canvasback duck. It was a humbling experience when we realized we had misjudged their speed during our initial shots.

After a couple of attempts, I managed to bring down a young swan. In the culinary world, it is widely known that younger swans are preferable for their tenderness and flavor. Historical accounts from Britain, where swan consumption was once considered a luxury, support this notion. Even Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria reportedly enjoyed cygnets, juvenile swans, for their Christmas dinners.

Back home, I carefully plucked the swan, preserving its skin and fat for the full gastronomic experience. The bird, resembling a combination of a snow goose and a Canada goose, yielded relatively lean meat. I couldn’t resist showcasing the different parts of the swan in various dishes. The wingtips, neck meat, feet, and giblets went into a German soup called “ganseklein,” while the breast was pan-roasted to medium-rare and served with wild cranberry chutney and swan liver dumplings.

Photo by Holly A. Heyser

The verdict? Swan meat has a surprising resemblance to duck, with its dark, tender, and mildly flavored meat. It lacks the toughness sometimes found in Canada goose breast and lacks the gamey taste of many geese. While I enjoyed it, I must admit that specklebelly geese still rank as my top choice among waterfowl delicacy.

So, would I hunt another swan? Certainly. If I found myself in one of the states where swan hunting is permitted—Utah, Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Virginia, or North Carolina—I wouldn’t hesitate to apply for a tag. However, I wouldn’t plan an entire trip solely for hunting swans. When it comes to waterfowl, my heart still belongs to the exquisite specklebelly goose.

If you’re intrigued by the unique experiences and flavors that Parkside Mansion offers, visit their website to discover more about their world-class cuisine and events.

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