New York Wants To Get Rid Of Mute Swans

In the war against invasive species, the targets are typically unappealing. Think feral pigs, snakehead fish, Asian long-horned beetles and emerald ash borers. But now, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has declared war on mute swans — the jumbo, snow-white waterfowl with the long, graceful necks — which were introduced from Europe in the late 1800s for their aesthetic appeal.

While they may be handsome, they can also be nasty: destroying habitat for native ducks and geese, attacking other waterfowl and people, and posing a risk to passenger jets.

That is why the department proposed declaring the swans a “prohibited invasive species” and set a goal to eliminate virtually all of the 2,200 swans in the state by 2025. The birds would either be shot or captured and gassed; eggs on nests would be oiled, which keeps them from hatching. A final plan is expected this year.

The crusade against the mute swan, the state’s largest bird, has pitted conservationists and bird-watchers, who generally favor the plan, against animal-rights activists and some parkgoers who seem horrified by it. For the state, it poses an unusual public relations challenge as officials set out to educate a public that sees the birds as a symbol of romantic love.

“I knew there would be a lot of passionate defenders of swans, but we can’t base our management policies just on the aesthetics of a bird when it has such negative impacts,” said Bryan Swift, the conservation agency’s statewide waterfowl specialist.

To assuage potential critics, the state would let private landowners apply for permits to keep mute swans on their property, as long as they agree to prevent the birds from going elsewhere (for example, by clipping their wings) and to prevent the eggs from hatching. Mr. Swift even envisions situations in which public parks could retain some mute swans, on the condition that park stewards prevent their reproduction.

The state would not just start shooting, but would seek permission from private property owners and from local and county governments to destroy swans on their land. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn, some wildlife activists have named the swans there and can tell them apart.

At Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn this week, some two dozen mute swans intermingled with a variety of gulls and ducks. Despite the cold weather, passers-by stopped and admired the swans, tossing bread and pizza crusts their way.

Few knew about the proposal to eradicate mute swans. Those who did expressed shock and drew an analogy with New York’s immigrant population.

“If they were born here, they should be considered native by now,” said Michael Vangi of Bayside, Queens, whose father was born in Italy and who stopped near the bay for lunch. A co-worker, Joseph LoRe, agreed. “I’m not an environmentalist, but that seems kind of messed up,” he said, referring to the extermination plan. “Is that how we treat immigrants?”

Wildlife biologists and conservationists say that feeding the swans has, in part, led to a surge in their numbers, which have tripled in the past 30 years. Most live on Long Island, but the biggest expansion has been around Lake Ontario in the Rochester area. A 1993 plan to reduce them to 500 statewide was unsuccessful, relying on oiling eggs and removing birds only from state-owned wildlife areas.

While GooseWatch NYC, an animal-rights group, has denounced the proposal, more than two dozen Audubon Society chapters in the state are considering it. Mike Burger, director of conservation and science for Audubon New York, said the statewide group would soon have a conference call with the 27 chapter heads. An official position will follow, but an endorsement seems likely.

“We are very comfortable moving forward with a position that is supportive of the D.E.C.’s plan,” Mr. Burger said. “It’s not something we do lightly. We have a general position that says we favor nonlethal control methods when possible. But in this case, there is a good basis for reaching a conclusion that in order to reduce the population to desired levels, lethal control is necessary.”

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Paul D. Curtis, an associate professor of wildlife science in the department of natural resources at Cornell University, listed a number of negative effects of the growing mute swan population. (Two swans native to North America, trumpeter and tundra swans, have a smaller presence in New York and are found mostly upstate.) The biggest problem is that mute swans yank out underwater vegetation, which harms habitat for fish and waterfowl, disrupts the food chain and clouds the water.

Some bird-watchers have reported scary encounters with aggressive swans protecting nests. Lenora Daniel, conservation chairwoman of the Great South Bay Audubon Society on Long Island, recalled the time she was canoeing with her husband and young son and was attacked by a swan. She fought it off with a paddle.

“It was hissing like crazy and tried to get in the canoe with us,” she said. “They make themselves look huge.”

About narhvalur

Environmentalist, Animal Lover, Birder,Equastrian
This entry was posted in Birds, Invasive Species and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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