The Ugly Swan

The Ugly Swan by Ted Williams From the Nov.-Dec. 1997 Audubon You can't see the ugliness of mute swans by looking at them. In fact, the 79 that paddled ahead of our pram on the blazing morning of August 1, 1997 were strikingly beautiful. Now in the molt, most were flightless. They swam with their necks curved in a graceful "S" and their wings arched above their backs -- regal birds, immaculate white with black, fleshy knobs over orange bills, the biggest (or, according to some sources, second biggest) flying beasts on earth. The breeze off South Cape Beach bore the rich fragrance of seaweed, tidal flats and the clean, wild Atlantic. Two ospreys hovered above us; mallards erupted; monarch butterflies danced through purple loosestrife, killifish rippled the shallows. I felt as if I were in the middle of a ballet. As we approached, most of the swans faded into the cattails and fragmites at the north end of the 30-acre Cape Cod salt pond. The 20 or so that retained sufficient feathering lumbered aloft, first running along the surface, slapping the wavelets with huge black feet, enormous wings pounding, wind blasting through ragged primary feathers with a sound audible for a mile and reminiscent of French police sirens. Steering the pram's electric outboard was Mike Ciaranca, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University and one of the leading mute-swan authorities in North America. This pond, he told me, is one of five water bodies in Massachusetts where mute swans congregate in large numbers during the vulnerable time of molt. In the fall, when fresh feathers have grown in, they will scatter with the four winds, fetching up on Massachusetts' outer islands, inland Cape Cod, perhaps even Rhode Island and Connecticut. Not everyone is happy about it. Least happy of all are people who value native species and natural ecosystems. Mutes, which evolved in Europe and Asia, made their North American debut in the wild when a breeding pair -- apparently escapees -- showed up in New York State in 1919. Today these aliens have proliferated dangerously, each male defending territories of up to 25 acres and frequently evicting or even killing native birds. In the Midwest mutes are displacing nesting loons; along the Atlantic they are displacing shorebirds and waterfowl. In Chesapeake Bay they are accidentally trampling the eggs and young of black skimmers and four species of terns. Throughout their New-World range they are on the verge of becoming a major scourge -- the avian equivalent of kudzu, in say, 1960 -- 25 years after it was unleashed on the American South for "erosion control." To get at shellfish and the roots of aquatic vegetation mute swans use their feet like toilet plungers, swirling out substrate and degrading water clarity. They consume eight to 10 pounds of vegetation a day, ripping up plants by the roots; and they pollute ponds and foul beaches and shorelines with their prolific feces. Yet in spite of all the ecological and environmental costs of mute swans, their beautiful appearance renders them largely exempt from population reduction by professional wildlife managers who are shouted down every time they propose control on any scale that would be effective. Even birth control by shaking eggs and thereby scrambling embryos has been largely avoided. Carefully regulated public hunting seasons of the sort that traditionally have been set for our native waterfowl are politically out of the question. And that's a pity, according to my friend Boon who shoots mutes illegally and tells me that no more succulent wildfowl ever set wing over a December goose blind. History bears him out. So relished were mute swans in ancient England that they could be owned only with approval of the crown. In 1466 George Neville, Archbishop of York, served 400 at his Installation Feast. Traditionally, most English swans were semi-domestic; each bore the mark of its owner on its bill, and all were tended by the "Royal Swanherd." Today, however, mute swans are classified as a "royal bird" in England and it is illegal to kill or eat them. But over there, at least, they are part of the native fauna. Americans don't have that excuse. They are too enamored of these aliens to even think about eating them or permitting desperate state and federal resource agencies to regulate numbers. So in Michigan and Wisconsin and along the Atlantic Flyway from Massachusetts to Virginia the feral population is exploding. Summer surveys on the Atlantic Flyway show an increase from 5,800 birds in 1986 to 10,268 in 1996. Michigan now has about 3,000, Wisconsin about 300. Frightened by an emotional, vocal, supremely ignorant public, resource bureaucrats have steadfastly ignored the warnings of their own biologists. Ten years ago, Charles Allin, Gregory Chasko and Thomas Husband advised the Wildlife Society that "at the present average annual growth rate of 5.6 percent, the current Atlantic Flyway mute swan population could possibly double by the year 2000. If flyway-wide control is not implemented soon, presently acceptable control methods may become ineffective in managing the population." Today, with flyway-wide control still a distant dream, the predicted proliferation of mute swans is ahead of schedule. ******** Some of the swans Ciaranca and I were watching wore flexible plastic neck bands, the numbers of which he read with a spotting scope. When people hear the normal vocalization of this only relatively mute species -- gasps, grunts, growls and gurgles -- they worry that the bands are too tight. Once Ciaranca had to make a three-hour drive from Boston to Hyannis after a frantic swan advocate phoned to report that a banded (and perfectly content) bird was "choking." When Ciaranca had finished recording band numbers we loaded the pram back onto his truck and drove through a Cape Cod scrub forest of black gum, red oak, pitch pine and sassafras to Red Brook Pond where water lilies bloomed white as swan down and young largemouth bass squirted into the air for dragonflies. We were checking on "Jimmy Durante" -- a monster mute, so-named for the prominence of his black knob. At roughly 45 pounds, Jimmy is not much smaller than the biggest mute on record -- 50.7 pounds. Males of our native trumpeter swan -- said by biologists who have handled large numbers of both species, to be the world's second biggest flying bird -- tend to be slightly larger than female mutes. But male trumpeters tend to be slightly smaller than male mutes. Presently Jimmy, his nameless mate and their three surviving cygnets appeared at the far end of the pond. Six cygnets had hatched, but snapping turtles -- among the mute's few predators on this continent -- had consumed three. To a large element of the public it is a heart-rending sight to see a young swan struggling frantically as it spirals downward into tea-colored marsh water, victimized by an ugly, smelly, Triassic relic. Last spring a Maryland woman hired a Chesapeake Bay waterman to trap the native snapping turtles so that her pair of alien swans could raise all their fuzzy cygnets in her inlet. Even by mute-swan standards Jimmy Durante is ferocious. Once, when Ciaranca threw a net over his head, Jimmy responded by giving him a severe bruising with the heavy manus joints of his wing bones and, with his sharp claws, tearing off the biologist's shirt and a good deal of skin from his back and arms. He showed me the scars. On another occasion, after Ciaranca had invaded his territory, Jimmy pummeled a stand of basketball-player-tall fragmites until it was level with the ground. Mutes swans are one of the few species that commonly fight each other to the death. One biologist described the process as follows: "The unfortunate swan is usually pursued and 'ridden' by the aggressor, his head being forced beneath the water until he either drowns or succumbs from exhaustion." They kill dogs in the same fashion and, on at least two occasions, people -- a Massachusetts child circa 1930 and, in 1982, an Indiana fisherman who drowned when a swan apparently capsized his boat and beat him on the head and shoulders until he went under. (In case anyone was plotting a reprisal, the local deputy sheriff caught the bird and placed it under protective custody.) One swan, in a fit of rage, was seen to crush a galvanized steel bucket. Connecticut biologist Greg Chasko had an angry mute fly across a river to pound the hull of his 19-foot motorboat. And in Michigan mutes regularly attack jetskis, sometimes launching out of a marsh as soon as the engine fires up, flying across the lake at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour, and knocking the rider out of the saddle. "Half the lake owners cheer," reports Joe Johnson, chief biologist at Michigan State University and chairman of the trumpeter swan restoration committee in the Mississippi Flyway. Because Michigan's mutes have become a real danger to humans -- sometimes striking them hard enough to cause lacerations that require stitches -- the state has a program to remove "rogue swans," as Johnson calls them. When the local populace or local unit of government wants a swan disappeared, it must petition the Department of Natural Resources. If, after careful screening, the DNR determines that there really is a threat to human safety, it will capture the bird and take it to Lansing where prodigious efforts are made to find it a happy home in a zoo or park. Still, a group called "Save Our Swans," which opposes even live capture, has recently taken the state to court. Wisconsin didn't see fit to control its swans until this year, and even now it only dabbles in experimental birth control, injecting the four-inch-long eggs with a bleach solution. (If you break or remove the eggs, the female just lays new ones.) Biologist Mike Mossman of the Wisconsin Bureau of Wildlife Management says his agency is "looking at the practicality" of sterilizing males and has left lethal control as an "option," especially when there are conflicts with trumpeters. Rhode Island, one of only four states in the Atlantic Flyway that attempts to control mute swans, shakes eggs -- hazardous duty for biologists who occasionally get beaten up by angry males. "Fielding a line drive without a glove" is how one egg shaker described the sensation of a manus joint hitting his outstretched hand. Most animal-rights activists can live with "egg addling," as the technique is called. But the militants can't. Very pregnant and with swan egg in hand, Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Lori Suprock was confronted by a man who made threatening gestures and asked her how she'd like to have her eggs shaken. On another occasion a woman phoned her to request "proper burial" for a swan that had expired in a marsh. Suprock explained that death comes inevitably to all wild, feral and domestic animals, that burial of wildlife is not a service her agency provides, and that carrion is part of the web of life. The woman was outraged. "When a kid gets run over on the highway," she demanded, "is that part of the web of life?" But such reaction seemed downright friendly compared to the tongue lashings Suprock's and Allin's agency got before it was hounded into ceasing lethal control of adults. In July 1976 animal-rights groups enjoyed a feeding frenzy when they discovered swans that had been quietly killed and placed in a pit by Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife swan controllers. Since 1979, when swan killing stopped, egg addling has proved thoroughly inadequate, especially with birds moving in from Massachusetts and Connecticut where there is no control of any sort. Since 1978 Rhode Island's mute swans have been proliferating just as fast as the flyway average. Connecticut which has about 1,600 mutes, was twice deterred from meaningful control by public protests -- once in 1988 and once in 1990. "The department [of Environmental Protection] is wedded to hunters," Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral had told *The New York Times,* "and they're trying to appease the few who get angry when they see a swan floating in a square foot of space that a shootable duck or goose could be floating in." In a press release Friends of Animals stated that its researchers had determined that "swans' feeding habits are useful for saving rivers from an overabundance of water weeds and their droppings enrich plant life where it is less plentiful." The department tried again in 1992, this time suggesting just egg addling. But the public thought that making birds sit on dead eggs was a mean trick, and the General Assembly blocked it. Vermont had no mute swans until 1993 when a pair mysteriously appeared on Arrowhead Mountain Lake in the northwest corner of the state. With only eight birds in 1997, the Department of Fish and Wildlife thought that eradication wouldn't be that difficult, but last summer when it announced a plan to kill the birds, having already addled their eggs, it got a rude awakening. The department did everything right. It held a hearing in May, and when it announced a tough, no-swan policy two months later it asked to meet with the stridently pro-swan Arrowhead Mountain Lake Association. T.V. and newspaper reporters descended on the event, and the news that Vermont was into swan killing went out over the internet. Within hours the department was getting broadsided by animal-rights groups all across the country. "The amount of emotion mute swans create is just incredible," Vermont biologist Bill Crenshaw told me. We decided that just for this year we would live-capture as many of these birds as possible." In its search for happy homes for the swans the department contacted resource agencies in Quebec, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland and, in all cases, was forbidden to bring the birds across the borders. At last it palmed the birds off on what it calls a "private conservation facility" in Texas, a state whose ecological illiteracy has made it a global trash bin for alien species. Even live capture and transfer is unacceptable to an element of the public. "The only invaders here are pro-hunting state governments and the Audubon Society," declared Dot Hayes, director of public information for Friends of Animals, after the Vermont Audubon Council had endorsed the state's swan-removal plan. "Capture and transportation will be traumatic and is likely to cause death for some of the birds. This is unnecessary since the mute swans successfully adapted to Vermont and they have every right to remain there." Such values seem to be proliferating as fast as North America's mute swans, and biologists like Vermont wildlife director Ron Regan find them alarming. "The public has lost sight of the fact that animals die," he remarks. "Time and time again people said to me 'Well, we're not native either.' We actually had a native American come to the hearing. She was the first speaker; and she said 'None of you would be here if my people hadn't let you come. So why can't we let the swans stay?' I tried to assert that man has management prerogatives and responsibilities. I really thought there would be more sympathy for the idea of conserving native species and natural systems. I had people say to me, 'Big deal. Who says a mute swan is worse than a gadwall or a heron?' I'd ask them what they thought we should do with zebra mussels. They'd say, 'That's different.' Or: 'So what if we lose all the native mussels? We shouldn't kill anything at all. And if the zebra mussels are here, that's just the way of the world and let them stay.'" ******** The mute-swan woes of all states pale in comparison with those of Maryland. On the eastern shore mutes have eliminated the only colonies of state-threatened least terns to nest on natural habitat on the Maryland side of Chesapeake Bay and one of the two colonies of state-threatened black skimmers. And they are displacing common, Forster's and royal terns. The native tundra swan persists in Maryland but is steadily loosing ground to the non-migratory and much larger mute which spends the entire year glutting itself on the very plants the tundra swan requires in autumn after its grueling 4,000-mile flight from the arctic. So spectacular had been the recovery of bay grass around Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge's Barren Island that in 1993 the National Geographic Society saw fit to include it as part of its Chesapeake Bay exhibit in Washington. But mute swans have halted and reversed that recovery. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources addles mute-swan eggs and shoots and captures adults, but only in response to local crises. For example, about 250 or 40 percent of the swans that are trashing ecosystems in the vicinity of Barren Island have been shipped live to a game breeder in New Mexico. Collectively, the effort has not impeded the state-wide infestation which, over the past decade, has increased about 1,000 percent -- from 264 birds to 3,000. Meanwhile, an experimental plan to determine the practicality of re-introducing trumpeter swans to the Chesapeake by conditioning them to follow an ultra-light aircraft along their historic migration route is being challenged by mute-swan lovers. "Obviously, no one asked for my vote, but I prefer the mute swan to the far less beautiful trumpeter whose call has been compared to the sound of a 'French horn, devoid of melody,'" wrote Fawn Coleman of Fishing Creek, Maryland in July 18th issue of the local *Daily Banner.* "The tundra or whistling swan, approximately half the size of the trumpeter, has been proved to be the cause of jet crashes…This 'fanatic' wonders if the state of Maryland is willing to accept the potential liability when a trumpeter swan causes a fatal plane crash." Ms. Coleman, who feeds mute swans, tells me she once had 66 in her yard. She says they like to follow her husband back and forth when he rides the lawnmower and that they enjoy classical music: "One day I was playing Beethoven's Ninth, and there were these swans clustered against the rip-rap. They could not have been more organized if they had season tickets. They sat there almost immobile." Some of Coleman's neighbors and fellow mute-swan lovers were reportedly reduced to tears when they found the remains of six swans that DNR biologists had shot and left on Barren Island. Another neighbor made a video in which one of the swans -- which the biologists say was shot while flying -- is draped forlornly over an egg-filled nest. This he released to three T.V. stations and local newspapers which played it up as if it were an ATF firebombing. According to the neighbors, the swans had first been clubbed to death, then shot -- a procedure that would seem impractical, illogical and impossible, and one that the DNR vehemently denies having performed. Still, the neighbors called a meeting to determine if the DNR had been guilty of cruelty to animals. In attendance were Maryland's assistant attorney general, the state's attorney for Dorchester County, the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Humane Society of the United States and the neighbors. Mute-swan advocate Joyce Hill produced what she calls "a forensic letter" written by a doctor who had examined the neighbors' photos and from them concluded that the birds had indeed been clubbed prior to being shot. The state didn't buy it. But Joyce Hill hasn't given up. "It's extinction," she cried. "They're pinioning them; they're cutting off their wings; and they're doing it illegally. It's cruelty to animals. I'm the one who fed them; and then there were all these articles that there were a thousand swans down here eating all the grass. There hasn't been any grass here since 1972. I fed them corn or they couldn't have survived…It's absurd to call them non-native; they've been here for years and years and years. They shot and clubbed them to death. The females!" Hill's husband, James, likens lethal swan control to capital punishment and says that it has effected his household "as though someone in the family has died." Such perception of the natural world is hardly aberrant; in fact, it is being taught to young people. Recently the DNR was soundly upbraided by Ms. LuAnn Hall's fourth grade class of the Riverside Elementary School in Joppa, Maryland. "Scientists," wrote one child, "I hate that you're killing swans. Stop killing them please. It's not nice to kill them…I love swans." The DNR can't seem to win. When the Fish and Wildlife Service, at the request of the state, herbicided and then burned an invasion of fragmites on a swanless island just north of Barren the neighbors claimed that the state had escalated its war on swans by resorting to flame throwers. ******** The last flock of mute swans Ciaranca and I inspected were infesting Salt Pond in Falmouth, Massachusetts, a preserve for oysters -- a delicacy which somehow will never again be the same for me, especially on the halfshell. Swan feces, which Ciaranca harvested with miniature plastic spoons for a giardia and cryptosporidium study, littered the bare, muddy shore. The acidity had killed the marsh grass, and the stench, reminiscent of ammonia-soaked rags, caused my eyes to water. The scats were about the shape and size of those produced by dogs, and the color range was remarkable -- browns, grays, blacks and greens. As we stood there half a dozen of the 36 swans on the pond paddled over to us in the hope of getting fed. Presently we moved to another swan-blighted shore beside a paved bicycle path. While Ciaranca collected more feces I watched a school of small fish, vainly trying to determine species. A lonely oyster, surrounded by large divots where swans had been puddling, clung to a rock. Behind us, two young women appeared on the bike path, pushing a double stroller containing blond twins. They had come here to watch the swans. They stood in the sun, smiling, talking, cooing, pointing out the beautiful white birds to the babies. Ciaranca says no manager wants to eliminate mute swans; it's impossible anyway. "All we want to do is get them down to a reasonable number and keep them there," he said. I wondered if the women would be content with six swans instead of 36. I thought about asking them, but Ciaranca's research depends on him staying in the good graces of the public. Ahead of us -- in a picture that has inspired humans through the ages -- the swans cleaved the sparkling surface, their necks curved in the shape of an "S," their wings arched above their backs. - 30 -