Chesapeake Swan Song exhibition opens April 11 at CBMM

The story of the evolving relationship between the people and swans of the Chesapeake Bay will be told through a curated collection of decoys, photographs, and artifacts in a new exhibition at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Chesapeake Swan Song: From Commodity to Conservation will open Saturday, April 1, 2015 and continue through April 3, 2016. Entry is free for CBMM members or with general museum admission.

The exhibition is generously sponsored by Guyette & Deeter—the world’s leading decoy auction firm—Judy and Henry Stansbury, and Gourmet by the Bay in St. Michaels, MD.

Over the last 150 years, the population and perception of swans has dramatically changed within the Chesapeake region. These magnificent waterfowl—today valued for their aesthetic beauty and rarity—were once part of the bay’s commercial harvest.

Hunted for sport, food, and feathers, the Chesapeake’s plummeting swan population was protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Since then, the bay’s swans have become treasured ornaments, inspiring artists, bird watchers, and photographers. They have also become a source of controversy, provoking bitter debate in the early 21st century as the State of Maryland sought to control the proliferating population of invasive mute swans.

For thousands of years, two native swan species—tundra and trumpeter—have migrated from the Arctic to the protected coves of the Chesapeake Bay. Flying south in white wedges, their arrival signified sustenance for the bay’s native tribes and later, for the colonists who scratched out a living along the bay’s tributaries. In the 19th century, equipped with accurate, inexpensive firearms, hunters harvested more swans than ever before, shipping birds to Baltimore for fancy suppers. The snowy white feathers were in high demand in New York and London, where they were used to decorate women’s hats and made into powder puffs and foamy slippers. To entice the birds within range, carvers throughout the Chesapeake crafted huge swan decoys, from crude to elaborate, that mimicked swans feeding, swimming, and preening.

Swans, huge and elegant, have come to represent our evolving ideas regarding the Chesapeake environment. From a source of sustenance to a driver of mass harvest, a creature of conservation to a provocative invasive, swans convey the changing story of the Chesapeake’s hunting culture.

Chesapeake Swan Song explores this interwoven story of swans and people on the Chesapeake Bay through a selection of swan decoys, artifacts, and ephemera from the 19th and 20th centuries.

For more information, visit or call 410-745-2916