Although Turkeys were imported from America in the 16th century, the festive roasting bird for most English people remained the goose. But at the tables of royalty and the nobility, geese were considered humble fare, and the dish that would be served at a grand banquet was roast swan.
Only the king and substantial landowners were allowed to keep swans, which were marked with nicks on their beaks to show who owned them. There were hardly any wild mute swans in the kingdom, since their wings were regularly pinioned. Even so, swans were not domesticated like farmyard poultry; they were free to swim wherever they liked, and matings between birds belongings to different flocks on the same river took place every year. The Royal Swan Master and his deputies travelled the country setting disputes over the ownership of each new crop of cygnets.
In the 18th century, swan-keeping gradually declined, largely because swans are so much more trouble to manage than geese or turkeys - they require a lot of space, including a stretch of open water, and are difficult to handle and aggressive.
Today only the swans on the Thames are considered to be owned - either by the Queen or by the City of London livery companies of the Dyers or the Vintners. Every July, 'swan-upping' takes place: the cygnets are rounded up, their wings are pinioned and their beaks marked - two nicks for the Vintners and one for the Dyers. Royal birds are left unmarked. Everywhere else in Britain, away from the Thames, the mute swan is now wild.