Popular with the public, mute swans have few friends in high places
ALBANY, N.Y. –– After vetoing bills to protect mute swans in 2014 and 2015, New York governor Andrew Cuomo on November 28, 2016 endorsed into law a bill by Brooklyn assembly member Steven Cymbrowitz which imposes a two-year moratorium on a New York Department of Environmental Conservation scheme to extirpate mute swans from the state by 2025.
The new law also requires the NY-DEC to hold at least two public hearings before adopting any plans to “manage” mute swans.
NY must prioritize “non-lethal management”
In addition, the new law obliges the NY-DEC to prioritize “any non-lethal management techniques and include scientific evidence of projected and current environmental damage caused by the mute swan population.”
“Cuomo had maintained that the DEC was already taking steps to monitor any killing of the mute swans, which had been deemed as an invasive species,” wrote USA Today Albany bureau chief Joseph Spector.
The New York state mute swan population has already been killed down to about 2,200, from a 2002 peak of 2,800, according to NY-DEC data. While mute swans can be found in captivity or semi-captive situations throughout the state, self-perpetuating populations of wild mute swans are known to persist only in the Hudson River valley, the Finger Lakes region, and in the New York City wetlands.
Victory for GooseWatch NYC
The Cymbrowitz bill was reportedly introduced, re-introduced, and re-introduced again despite Cuomo’s repeated vetoes at instigation of GooseWatch NYC founder and 2015 Brooklyn Law School graduate David Karopkin, 31.
“There is no hard evidence that mute swans harm the environment,” Karopkin told McClatchy-Tribune News Service reporter Mary Lou Simms in 2015.
Founded in 2010 in response to purges of non-migratory giant Canada geese, GooseWatch NYC upon learning of the plan to extirpate mute swans in 2014 “launched a campaign to save New York’s mute swans,” the GooseWatch NYC web site recalls. “The DEC received approximately 50,000 emails in opposition to their proposal, and issued a revised management plan in 2014,” revised again a year later, but still focused on mute swan eradication.
Karopkin acknowledged receiving help for the GooseWatch NYC campaign to save mute swans from “organizations including the Animal Welfare Institute, Four Harbors Audubon Society, the Pegasus Foundation, the Humane Society of the U.S., the American SPCA, NYCLASS, the Regal Swan Foundation, Friends of Animals, Save Mute Swans, the League of Humane Voters, In Defense of Animals, and Long Island Orchestrating for Nature.”
Roger Tory Peterson
Mute swans continue to be purged in other states, including Connecticut, where plans to extirpate them ran into fierce resistance as early the 1980s, led by ornithologist and artist Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996), with political and legal help from Friends of Animals.
Peterson, editor and chief illustrator of more than 50 field guides, was introduced to birding in 1924, at age 11, by a Junior Audubon Club. The members were taught to shoot birds and study their corpses. Horrified, Peterson saved his earnings as a newspaper boy to buy a camera, at a time when shutter speeds were believed to be too slow to capture clear images of birds on the wing, and soon became the first distinguished bird photographer, hand-tinting his prints because color film had not yet been invented. Peterson produced his first Field Guide to the Birds in 1934.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Peterson influentially testified against mute swan eradication until his death. Fellow Old Lyme resident Kathryn Stillwell Burton then took up the cause, until her death in 2014.
Founding the organization Save The Mute Swans, Burton managed to stop mute swan massacres several times with lawsuits citing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, including with a U.S. Court of Appeals verdict in 2001, in a case assisted by the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the U.S., which later absorbed the Fund for Animals.
Congress, however, amended the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 2004 to exclude mute swans and non-migratory Canada geese (among a long list of other “invasive” species) from coverage.
The Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection in July 2016 introduced an updated “policy for killing the birds when they’re ill, lame or considered a public threat, as well as ‘addling’ their eggs — essentially causing a fertilized egg to stop developing,” reported Susan Haigh of Associated Press.
“These new operating procedures,” Haigh explained, “which establish criteria for determining when a mute swan poses a risk to the public, were partly prompted by controversy surrounding the April 20, 2016 killing of a male swan in Killingly. The bird and his mate were known for years by residents who live near Five Mile Pond, in a rural part of northeastern Connecticut.”
Reported John Penney of the Norwich Bulletin, “The male swan was protecting a nesting area on Five Mile Pond,” according to Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesperson Dennis Schain.
Said Schain, “Earlier this week, we were notified that a husband and wife out on the water were attacked by the swan, but were able to make it to shore. A short time later, the same swan went after two boys in a canoe, causing the boat to tip over.”
But Schain’s account was disputed by witness Ed Greczkowski.
The male mute swan and his mate would “come up to the neighborhood homes and I’ve hand-fed them grain and chicken feed,” Greczkowski told Penney. “They were kind of like neighborhood pets, coming back here every year.”
In the incident leading to the swan being killed, Greczkowski said, “The male came out and chased the boat away and the kayakers began swatting at it with an oar. A short time later, another kayak went by and then the canoe. The swan was still upset and it went at the boat, tipping it. I went out and helped the two people out of the waist-deep water.”
Purged in Ohio, too
What initially appeared to be similar incident at Jackson Bog, Ohio in May 2016 turned out to be part of an Ohio Department of Natural Resources plan to purge mute swans, witness Richard Caldas learned.
The agency “killed the non-native mute swans to make way for native trumpeter swans,” Canton Repository staff writer Kelly Byer reported. “After expressing concerns to ODNR and politicians, residents were dismayed to see the scene replayed, even as “about a dozen residents and bystanders confronted ODNR representatives as their canoe came to shore with the birds and eggs. The birds had been there at least seven years and residents say they saw no signs of aggression or harm to the bog.”
Blamed for trumpeter swan reintroduction failures
Mute swans have long been blamed for allegedly displacing trumpeter swans from parts of their range, but evidence is sparse that this has ever actually happened to significant degree.
GooseWatch NYC cites a 2007 literature review by University of Connecticut researchers Martha M. Ellis and Chris S. Elphick.
Wrote Ellis and Elphick, “Despite observing high rates of aggressive interactions with other species,” Michael R. Conover of the Jack H. Berryman Institute and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Utah State University, and Gary S. Kania of the National Wildlife Foundation in 1994 “found no evidence that swans caused nesting failures or excluded other species from the swans’ territories.”
But Conover and Kania warned that “The ability of mute swans to colonize freshwater sites may lead to further range expansion in North America.”
Continued Ellis and Elphick, “Isolated problems occur, for example where endangered beach-nesting birds have their nests trampled by swans, but whether population-wide impacts on native species exist is unknown.”
17-state extirpation plan
The Fund for Animals and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation contended successfully in a series of lawsuits filed circa 2000 that while mute swans are commonly blamed for the failure of trumpeter swans to repopulate to huntable abundance, trumpeter swans suffer most from being killed accidentally by tundra swan hunters, especially in the Yellowstone region.
“The Atlantic Flyway Council, made up of 17 state wildlife agencies, adopted a plan in 2003 to reduce the mute swan population,” recalled Associated Press writer Mary Esch in 2014. “Maryland has an aggressive control plan that has reduced the state population of mute swans from nearly 4,000 in 1999 to fewer than 100 by 2012. Michigan’s wildlife agency has said it wants to reduce the state’s mute swan population from about 15,500 to less than 2,000 by 2030. But culling programs have drawn criticism from humane organizations.”
Kathryn Burton rebuttal
“In 1978, at a Trumpeter Swan Society conference held in Anchorage, Alaska,” responded Kathryn Stillwell Burton to the 2003 Atlantic Flyway Council scheme to extirpate mute swans, “a plan was begun to supplant the mute swan in the wild with trumpeter swans, coast to coast,” including the introduction of trumpeter swans to “areas far outside its historic range. Trumpeter swans were never further east than Wisconsin in modern times, certainly never in New England or Pennsylvania,” according to the conferees’ own published proceedings.
“Within a short time,” Burton continued, “park staff were breaking the necks of mute swans at Yosemite,” waterfowlers were encouraged to shoot mute swans nearby, and an effort was also begun to extirpate mute swans from Yellowstone.
“Note,” says Burton, “that trumpeters were introduced to Yellowstone. Mute swans arrived there naturally.”
Participants in the “war on mute swans” (declared in so many words by then-University of Montana biologist Ruth Shea) have included the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the National Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Park Service, and many other government agencies, nonprofit groups, and universities.
The entire scheme, Burton assessed, was hatched chiefly out of the frustration of restoration biologists that for more than 50 years they had failed in their efforts to rebuild trumpeter swan populations, which in the 19th century and early 20th century had been hunted to the verge of extinction.
Trumpeter swans were brought from Alaska and released near Bend, Oregon, as early as 1929 in hopes of saving the species, but the total number of trumpeter swans in the continental U.S. fell as low as 70 circa 1935 before there was any turnaround.
There are now about 50,000 trumpeter swans in the Lower 48, about twice as many as in 2000, and at least double the mute swan population.
How mute swans got here
Most states with mute swans contend that their populations grew from accidentally escaped swans who were acquired for ornamental purposes in relatively recent times. Maryland, for example, claims the now mostly extirpated Chesapeake Bay population grew from just five who escaped in 1962.
Exempted since 2004 from protection by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, mute swans are classified by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and most ornithology reference words as not native to North America.
Kathryn Burton, however, points toward fossil evidence that mute swans have lived in parts of North America for at least 9,500 years, and toward the appearance of a mute swan in a 1585 watercolor by John White, one of the first artists to illustrate the wildlife of North America. The painting was mislabeled a trumpeter swan until Burton pointed out that it includes unique features of mute swans. White, a resident of the lost Roanoke Bay colony from 1585 to 1587, was briefly governor of the colony, and sold his watercolors to help fund the failed 1590 rescue mission which found the ruins of the colony but no trace of living inhabitants.
One known fatality
Mute swans have also been billed by agencies hell-bent on their extermination as potential threats to human life, but the only known human death attributed to mute swan behavior was the April 14, 2012 drowning of Anthony Hensley, 37, at the Bay Colony Drive condominium complex in an unincorporated part of Cook County, Illinois, near Des Plaines, west of Chicago.
Employed for about 10 years by Knox Swan & Dog LLC, a Great Barrington firm founded in 1990 that deploys mute swans and border collies to deter nonmigratory Canada geese, Hensley was rushed by a mute swan while making a routine check on the swans in his care.
‘Witnesses told police that Hensley, a Villa Park father with two young daughters, drowned after he was attacked by a nesting swan, causing his kayak to topple,’ reported Jennifer Delgado and Joseph Ruzich of the Chicago Tribune. “The bird continued to lunge at him aggressively as he struggled to make it to shore before disappearing under the water, authorities said. An experienced kayaker and strong swimmer, Hensley was weighed down when his heavy clothing and boots became waterlogged, his father Raymond Hensley told CBS Chicago.”
Field Museum senior conservation ecologist Doug Stotz told the Chicago Tribune that he was unaware of any previous fatal attacks.