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The Ugly Duckling Background Story

Dear Bird Folks,

When I was a kid I remember reading The Ugly Duckling, a story about a baby swan that doesn’t look like its much cuter siblings. I’ve never seen any baby swans. Are they really ugly?

– Linda, Falmouth, MA


Swell, Linda,

I realize that The Ugly Duckling is a classic story, but I wish you had asked me about a book that was a little more adult. In order to answer your question, I had to reread the book. That sounds pretty harmless, except it was awkward explaining to the rest of my family (and our company) why I was spending the afternoon reading a kid’s book. (They’re worried about me as it is.) After reading the book and learning a bit about its back-story, I discovered that The Ugly Duckling actually has a slight Cape Cod connection. Really. You’ll see.

The Ugly Duckling was written in 1843 by Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen. Like many “children’s” stories coming out of Europe at that time (Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, etc.), it’s a pretty dark tale. And these stories were supposed to be for kids? (At least the Brothers Grimm had the appropriate last name to match their work.) In The Ugly Duckling, a female duck incubates a clutch of eggs, but one particular egg takes a bit longer to hatch. When it finally hatches, the baby bird doesn’t match the rest of its nest mates. Andersen doesn’t explain how this different egg ended up in the nest. We are left to speculate if it rolled in on its own or if its real mother accidentally laid the egg in the wrong nest after a long night of partying. (I mean, who hasn’t done that?)

A nosey neighbor duck stops by the nest and declares that the strange egg must belong to a turkey, but the female isn’t convinced. But when the odd egg finally does hatch and the hatchling is “ugly,” the female begins to believe the turkey theory. (I’m sure this accusation didn’t sit well with the nearby turkeys. I don’t think they liked being called the “U” word.) In order to prove the mystery bird is indeed a turkey, the foster mother leads it to a nearby pond and forces it to swim. Her assumption being, turkeys can’t swim. Well, the joke was on her. The little bird instantly hopped into the water and swam just fine. This proved it wasn’t a turkey. (Actually, it didn’t prove anything, since turkeys can swim. Instead of the swim test, the duck should have just looked at the little bird’s feet. Turkeys’ feet aren’t webbed, but the feet on waterfowl are. You would think a duck would have known that.)

Next, the little bird is led into the barnyard where it is picked on by the other barnyard creatures. Even the farmer’s daughter is nasty to it, and I thought the farmer’s daughter was friendly to everyone. (At least she was always “friendly” in all the stories I heard when I was in middle school.) The distraught bird eventually runs away and joins a flock of wild ducks, which instantly accept it. Good news, right? No, not really. The next day all of the wild ducks are slaughtered by hunters and the little bird is now alone and more frightened than ever. As this lovely story continues, the lost bird suffers one nasty adventure after another, until spring finally arrives. This is when (spoiler alert) the ugly bird discovers it has grown into a beautiful swan. Ta-dah!

Are baby swans ugly? Oh my goodness, no. They are even cuter than baby ducks, and that’s saying something. In the case of Mute Swans, which are the invasive swans we have around here, their fluffy babies (cygnets) come in two different color morphs. They can be either white or gray, and are often seen riding on their parents’ backs. (That’s adorable, not ugly.) Adult swans are good parents, but they really don’t have to do too much. From day one, cygnets are able to walk, swim and feed themselves. The adults just have to protect their babies (which they are really good at) and brood them (keep them warm) and give them the occasional ride (just like the rest of us have to do for our kids).

Amazingly, it only takes two weeks or so for a songbird to transform from a tiny hatchling to a free-flying bird. But this is not the case for swans. Swans are huge and it will be many months before they are large enough to take to the air. During this long period, the flightless birds remain with their parents, slowly growing and molting into their signature white plumage. And while these adolescent swans might not look their best, they certainly aren’t ugly. They’re just a bit goofy…like most teenagers are at that age.

I’m sure you already know, Linda, that the story of The Ugly Duckling isn’t about birds. It has to do with bullying, intolerance and the fact that we all have bad hair days. What was Andersen’s motivation for writing the story? It seems the year in which he wrote The Ugly Duckling, he also met and fell in love with Jenny Lind, the famed Swedish singer. It has been suggested that his lack of self-esteem and his feelings for Lind are what inspired him to write his famous story. And what does any of it have to do with Cape Cod? In 1927, a lawyer, Henry Aldrich, another Lind fan, bought a stone tower from which Jenny reportedly sang and had it transported and reassembled on his land in North Truro. Pretty cool, eh? The Jenny Lind Tower, as it is known today, is still in North Truro, and it’s there for us all to see. Whether Lind actually sang from the tower, however, may be a bit of a myth, kind of like baby swans being ugly and turkeys not being able to swim.