Much attention has been focused recently on one big white bird, the snowy owl, but another still larger avian species is also in the news, the mute swan.
Unlike those other introduced bird species, the starling and the house sparrow, the mute swan is a handsome bird, perhaps best known to us from Hans Christian Anderson’s story of “The Ugly Duckling,” which matures to become, in his description, “the most beautiful of all the birds.”
The mute swan should not be confused with our native tundra swan. Tundra swans migrate through this region on their way from their wintering grounds along the Atlantic seaboard south of Pennsylvania to their breeding area in the tundra of the farthest northern reaches of this continent. Tundra swans are easily differentiated from mutes by their bill color: the mute’s is orange and the tundra’s is black.
Mute swans were first brought to North America in the late 19th century. Until about 1970, they remained uncommon, most found in park ponds where they had been introduced. From that time on, however, their population has increased exponentially, doubling every seven or eight years. Today in New York State there are more than 2,000. Well over half of them are found on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but their numbers are increasing rapidly in Western New York as well. For example, 15 have been recorded in Wilson Harbor, where for many years there were only two, and 65 can be found in Irondequoit Bay near Rochester.
To many people this sounds fine. Here is another beautiful bird to be seen more often. Unfortunately, the mute swan is a problem species. These big birds rapidly deteriorate the quality of any marsh they inhabit. They feed year-round almost exclusively on submerged aquatic vegetation, each day consuming a third of their body weight. Their voracious appetites quickly deplete this important marshland component that supports fish and other wildlife. They overgraze an area, destroying its value, and then simply move on, leaving the aquatic equivalent of a desert. In this they differ from tundra swans, which feed mostly on mollusks and land-based crops.
Mute swans are intolerant of other species, driving away or killing rails, ducks and geese. They are even aggressive toward people. And where these swans congregate, their feces significantly increase the coliform count.
In response, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed a management plan for mute swans. Here is the key wording of that plan: “DEC has been operating for close to 20 years under a management policy that permits removal of mute swans from lands administered by [the state], prohibits release of captive mute swans into the wild and authorizes issuance of permits for swan control by others on a site-specific basis. This new plan supports further action by DEC to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York by 2025, while allowing responsible ownership of these birds in captivity.”
The response to this plan has been, as I expected, very strong. Here are just a few reactions: “You better not mess with them.” “First the deer, now the swans, next it will be the poor.” “Man is the invasive species.”
I side with the DEC. I see its proposal as thoughtful, appropriate and necessary. Yes, the mute swan is beautiful, but it deserves the same consideration as those less attractive invasives: the Norway rat, the European starling and the emerald ash borer.
More information is available at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7076.html. You can submit comments until Feb. 21 to firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com (include in subject line: Swan Plan).