Most people think swans are beautiful. But the agreement seems to end there, when it comes to a new state plan to manage them. A proposal by the Department of Environmental Conservation to kill invasive mute swans isn’t flying with some animal lovers.
Mute swans are the most familiar swan species to most people. They’re big and white, with black and orange bills. They’re less vocal than other swans, which is how they got their name.
In the 1800s, people captivated by their looks brought them from Europe and Asia to North America to adorn ponds and gardens. But over time, they’ve moved into the wild, and now biologists say they pose a threat to native wildlife.
For one thing, they eat a lot.
“Each adult bird will consume somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight pounds of submerged aquatic vegetation a day,” said Paul Curtis, who studies human-wildlife conflict at Cornell University. “That could be close to a ton of vegetation a year, per swan.”
That vegetation is also food for native water birds, and nursery habitat for invertebrates and fish, Curtis said. Mute swans can also aggressively defend their nests, leaving coastal areas inaccessible for other birds and people. And their waste can raise bacteria levels in water.
That’s why the Department of Environmental Conservation wants them gone – especially along Lake Ontario, where their numbers have been increasing over the past two decades.
Bryan Swift is a state biologist who helped develop the new management plan. “We need to remove the animals, and shooting is the most efficient way for us to do that in most cases,” he said.
The plan aims to eliminate all free-ranging mute swans from the state by 2025. It includes other control strategies, like oiling eggs to prevent them from hatching, moving birds to private collections, banning their importation, and encouraging better management in neighboring states.
But what’s gotten the most attention is the DEC’s proposal to kill the birds when possible – something it’s already done on occasion, but would ramp up, along with other containment efforts.
Janelle Barabash is a Brooklynite whose petition against the plan has garnered over 34,000 signatures. “Our solution is birth control. I think non-lethal, humane containment is the answer,” she said.
But Curtis, of Cornell, says that’s not realistic. “The problem with sterilization or fertility control for any long-lived species is that you can stabilize population growth, but it takes many, many years potentially to see any reduction in numbers,” he said.
Curtis says the outcry over killing mute swans has to do with what made them appeal to North Americans in the first place: their beauty.
The DEC’s Swift agrees.
“Maybe if it was a less appealing species, like our Eurasian boars – we didn’t get the same response to an eradication plan for those animals,” he said.
Barabash acknowledged the birds’ beauty is part of why she’s opposed to killing them. Upstate, things might be different, she said. But in New York City, mute swans have become a rare symbol of the grandeur of nature.
Curtis and Swift contend that killing the swans is what’s best for nature.
The DEC is accepting public comments on its draft plan until February 21st.