Subscribe to BirdNote

Sign up to receive a weekly email preview of the following week's shows!

Sign Up
Support BirdNote

Help BirdNote tell more stories, reach more people, and inspire action.


You are here

Swan Song

Does a swan really lament its death in song?

The idea of the "swan song" recurs from Aesop to Ovid to Plato to Tennyson. Ovid described it, "There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song." But it's based on a sweet fallacy - that a swan sings only when it nears death. And calling the sounds that a swan makes a "song" might be a bit off, too!

Would you like to make a gift to BirdNote? Begin here.

Full Transcript

Swan Song

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote!

[Flock of Tundra Swans calling]

As a flight of Tundra Swans passes overhead on a winter day, their voices swell in a kind of wild music. [Flock of Tundra Swans calling] You might want to call it a “swan song.”

The term “swan song” has an old and intriguing lineage. The ancient Greeks believed that swans remained silent most of their lives, singing an exquisite, heartrending lament only at the moment of their death. Even the great classical philosopher Plato believed the tale. 

For the Greeks, the one familiar swan would have been the species called Mute Swan. Although the Mute Swan is not as silent as its name suggests, its voice is limited to an assortment of unmusical grunts and hisses. [Mute Swan sounds]

The swan song tale is truly legendary [Music from Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela], based on a fallacy, but one so endearing that it has survived for centuries. The terminal swan song recurs from Ovid to Aesop to Tennyson. 

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Portia says "Let music sound while he doth make his choice; / Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, / Fading in music.”

[Flock of Tundra Swans calling with Sibelius piece]

Thank you for listening to BirdNote. We’re also on the web at 


Tundra Swan audio provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Gerrit Vyn.

Mute Swan sounds recorded by Martyn Stewart,

Producer: John Kessler

© 2013 Tune In to     February 2017     Narrator: Michael Stein


ID# 021507swansongKPLU          swansong-01b


Sibelius, Jean “The Swan of Tuonela”: Opus 22 #2. Halle Orchestra, Dutton 2000.

Shakespeare quotation: The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 2

Sights & Sounds

Related topics: