By Shawn Perich
In New York, a proposal to begin down-sizing the state’s non-native mute swan population is meeting resistance from a sizeable segment of the public. The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s draft management plan calls for control measures to eradicate free-ranging mute swans by 2025. Those controls may include limited public hunting.
Mute swans are a Eurasian species that was introduced to North America in the late 1800s for ornamental purposes. Free-ranging birds have existed in New York and elsewhere for about a century. In New York, they are primarily found on Long Island, along the Hudson River and near the Great Lakes. The draft plan says the breeding population has expanded in the last decade, with an estimated statewide count of 2,200 free-ranging birds. For perspective, Minnesota’s restored population of trumpeter swans numbers over 5,500 birds.
Roughly the same size, mute and trumpeter swans are the continent’s largest waterfowl. But one is a desirable species and the other is not. The non-native mute swan is labeled as an invasive species and as such, has an extensive rap sheet. For starters, they consume a lot of aquatic vegetation—four to eight pounds per day—and may be destructive to wetland habitat. They are also aggressive, both to nesting ducks and geese and, during the nesting season, to people, though the risk of injury is low. If a flock of swans poops in the water, they may contribute to high fecal coliform counts.
Mute swans may be miscreants of the swamp to waterfowl biologists, but to the general public they are a graceful bird long considered a symbol of tranquility and beauty. Folks who appreciate mute swans may not be aware or even care that the birds are considered ecologically destructive. In fact, a couple of nationally published commentaries critical of the DEC’s mute swan management proposal made eloquent appeals to protect the swan status quo.
“After all, these are regal birds, protected in Europe and celebrated in myth, poetry and song,” wrote Hugh Raffles in the Feb. 18 edition of the New York Times. “Many people share W. B. Yeats vision of them as ‘mysterious, beautiful’ creatures that ‘delight men’s eyes,’ and they feel grateful for the otherworldly serenity that a mating pair or, even better, a snow-white flock can bring to the neighborhood pond in this age of municipal austerity.”
A note to wildlife biologists: When your critics are quoting Yeats, you’re facing an uphill battle for mute swan eradication. But in the biologists’ favor, others have already walked this path. Both Maryland and Michigan have developed mute swan management plans that allowed biologists to greatly reduce free-ranging populations on Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. Maybe New York will be able to do the same. Then again, the critics draw uncomfortable parallels.
CNN ran a commentary by Carl Safina, who said “The state says that mute swans are a problem for native waterfowl. I see native waterfowl, and their ducklings and goslings, on many of the same ponds where I see swans. Native waterfowl, by the way, that the state permits hunters to kill.
Here’s what hunters in New York state are allowed: ‘The daily limit of 6 ducks includes all species of mergansers, and may include 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be hens), 1 black duck, 3 wood ducks, 2 pintail, 2 redheads, 2 scaup, 2 canvasback, 4 scoters or 2 hooded mergansers.’
I’d like to know whether any mute swans kill six ducks per day or even per year.”
Well now, that’s an uncomfortable question and drags hunters into mute swan fray. Safina, an expert on oceans and environmental issues, no doubt knows mute swans don’t “kill” ducks when they damage wetlands, but instead make the habitat less habitable for ducks. Yet the point he makes is valid. Is mute swan control being done for Nature’s sake or are biologists simply trying to improve habitat to produce more ducks for hunters to kill? Just asking such a question is a sure way to pick a fight with just about any waterfowl biologist, all of whom would say healthy habitat is the ultimate management goal. Many would go on to say that an invasive species, whether it as ugly as a bighead carp or as beautiful as a swan, simply doesn’t belong in the habitat where it was introduced.
The problem is biologists talk the talk, but, for a multitude of reasons, don’t always walk the walk. For instance, in the Great Lakes, the government is proposing spending billions to prevent an invasion of Asian carp, while at the same time raising non-native trout and salmon to stock into the lakes for anglers. Across the Corn Belt, the government spends millions to create or protect habitat to increase the abundance of Chinese ring-necked pheasants to benefit hunting. Then again, we move native species around, too. Here in Minnesota, wild turkeys are stocked well north of their original range. Muskies, walleyes and smallmouth bass have been introduced to numerous state waters where they were previously nonexistent.
As Raffles pointed out in his commentary, ‘We live on a planet where not only are the fates of all species profoundly entwined, but where, one way or another, all plants, animals and natural phenomena have been touched by our often heavy human hands. What’s more, we’ve turned out to be unreliable managers of nature, allowing our interventions to be driven by interest groups and underwritten by unholy compromises. We have swerved from paradigm to paradigm as we rewrite our models of natural processes according to contemporary fashion…”
The current rewrite includes labeling introduced and non-native animals and plants as “invasive species,” a term that generates fear among the public and persuades politicians to fund species control projects, often at great expense and with little guarantee of success. Critters such as zebra mussels, which are destructive to both natural habitat and the works of man, merit the negative, invasive species moniker. But what about the honeybee, which was introduced to this continent by Europeans and is now relied upon by farmers to pollinate their crops? Recent declines in honeybee populations have been viewed with alarm by environmentalists and rightly so.
The mute swan isn’t beneficial like a honeybee, nor is it an overwhelming scourge like the zebra mussel. Instead it is a familiar creature that has existed in limited numbers for a century. Biologists have documented swan-induced habitat damage and have a scientific basis for seeking swan control. The trick is balancing that science with humans’ valid appreciation of an exquisitely beautiful bird. Right now, New York biologists are walking that tightrope. The state may have fewer swans in the future, but I suspect enough will remain to allow people to behold their beauty.