Swan song: State targets elegant, invasive birds for eradication

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What does an ugly duckling grow up to become in New York? A dead swan, that’s what — if the state gets its way!

Albany has declared the mute swan an enemy of the state and plans to eradicate the menace by 2025.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s recently released “Mute Swan Management Plan,” labels the bird an invasive species that hurts the environment and calls for the elimination of the per-swan-a non grata’s free-ranging population in the state.

“This plan supports actions by DEC to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York by 2025,” the department’s website reads.

The bird, which can weigh up to 25 pounds and is New York’s largest fowl, has become ubiquitous along Southern Brooklyn’s waterfront.

It’s a particularly common sight in Sheepshead Bay, where one unfortunate swan was discovered suffering from lead poisoning on E. 19th Street near Emmons Avenue last summer by local resident Sharon Messer, who happened to be the office manager for then-Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz’s. The big-hearted state employee quickly summoned the NYPD, which transported the swan to the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan, where it was treated before being sent to live out its days at a bird sanctuary in Stamford, Conn.

Other Brooklynites have a soft spot for swans as well, such as Anne-Katrin Titze and her trusty sidekick Ed Bahlman, who rescued three swans in Prospect Park last June that had gotten their beaks snared on carelessly discarded fishing hooks.

But in the eyes of the state, Messer, the Wild Bird Fund, Bahlman, and even Titze — a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by none other than the Department of Environmental Conservation — were all aiding and abetting a foul fowl bent on the destruction of New York’s watery habitats.

“Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation,” reads the department’s website.

The mute swan, which was introduced to the New World from Europe in the late 19th century, may be prized for its aesthetic qualities, but it’s also a vicious brawler, known to harass hapless pedestrians and other birds, which wander too close the swan’s nesting areas.

In addition, the mute swan is terrible glutton, and has been gobbling up underwater plant life at an alarming rate, according to agency, clear cutting submerged vegetation by 95 percent and so depriving native wildlife of food and habitats.

But perhaps most disturbing is what happens to all that vegetation after the swans eat it.

The department cites a 1979 study in Maryland of a similar species — tundra swans — which found they excreted 100 times more fecal coliform bacteria than Canada geese. A follow up study by the department confirmed that water in areas where mute swans feed had elevated concentrations of coliform bacteria, which can trigger beach closings when detected at high levels.

This is not the first time Brooklyn has been touched by anti-avian atrocities — authorities have carried out regular goose massacres in Prospect Park, sparking widespread public outrage and pro-goose civic action.

Public opinion could also become an obstacle to the state’s swan culling initiative. The mute swan’s distinctive white plumage, black facial markings and gracefully curved neck have become synonymous with beauty and romance, so the idea of tax dollars funding a program to hunt down and exterminate the birds may not go over well.

“There are different actions at play and people are trying to do their best to have this turned around,” said veterinarian Rita McMahon, who cared for the sick swan found in Sheepshead Bay. “All the swans that people respond to about how lovely and majestic they are, those are mute swans.”

Indeed, GooseWatch NYC — a group spawned by the infamous 2010 Prospect Park goose massacre — has already started a petition on Change.org entitled “Stop New York State’s Swan Killing Plan.” It has gotten more than 20,000 signatures so far.

The state is taking comments on the plan through Feb. 21. Mail to NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or email fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us with “swan plan” in the subject box.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.
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Reader Feedback

Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:

I am thoroughly opposed to the plan to eradicate the Mute Swans of New York. It is illogical in the extreme on multiple levels, and that includes a colossal misuse and waste of taxpayer money. I would certainly want to see an impartial NEPA study done by non-government and unbiased scientists before even considering such a plan.

There have never at any time been more than 16,000 to 20,000 Mute Swans in the entire United States. That is hardly a high number, in fact, it is more of a number warranting protection. In over 200 years, their population has remained relatively stable. Their young are subject to the same predators of any waterfowl - snapping turtles, foxes, dogs, , raccoons, etc., and they suffer the loss of a majority of their cygnets. Swans do not live in large flocks - a lake will have one or two pair and their babies and that is it. They do not seek out humans and all anecdotal stories of people who live in lake environments with swans are overwhelmingly friendly. Swans - indeed, ALL birds and animals - are protective of their nests and young, and the only incidents of swan aggression always involve human harrassment or other compromising behavior in which the bird was only defending itself and its young. This could easily be avoided by educating people, a far better use of my taxpayer money than killing birds.

The non-native species argument just doesn’t cut it. First of all, after over 200 years in this country, more likely 400 - AND with the possibility that some did indeed migrate (Trumpeters do, and Mutes hang with them, so it is not unreasonable that some Mutes migrated along with them; all Swans are circumboreal birds) - the Mute Swan is now a part of the United States, just as it is part of Canada. Lewis and Clark perfectly described Mute Swans in their exploratory journals, which was done at a time when the area they were traversing was wild territory. An English exploratory expedition in 1585 - long before settlement of the US - clearly shows Mute Swans in sketches sent back to encourage exploration of the New World. It is entirely likely that some Mute Swans came here naturally. More importantly, since we have Europeanized most of America, we created a habitat for it that is now natural. Furthermore, very few animals and birds are totally native – the DNR and Fish and Wildlife agencies have done most of that damage themselves, catering to the hunting lobby. They are the ones who have introduced the majority of species that are not native. To take this argument even further, animals themselves are constantly migrating out of their original areas, as, again, thanks to human interference, we are altering the landscape and even climate to the extent that wildlife is adapting. In some cases, the non-native animal is even beneficial to the new environment. So the native/non-native argument is irrelevant.

The Mutes do not displace native wildlife; in fact, just the opposite is true. They help bring up SAV that other waterfowl feed on as well and generally co-exist well. There is also nothing - NOTHING - that waterfowl do in water that is not natural and bio-compatible with their water environment. Studies of water show the REAL degradation in parks and lakes, etc. comes from dog and cat feces, NOT waterfowl's.
Jan. 24, 2014, 7:44 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:

There is currently a big push to re-establish the Trumpeter Swans and remove the Mutes. The Trumpeters were made almost extinct by overhunting; now they are in the process of being restored. However, they are being placed in areas they have never been before, making them "invasive" in those areas, and thereby setting them up for future hunting. The idea is to replace the Mute with the Trumpeter as the next trophy animal in the bird hunting world, the largest waterfowl in North America. This has been the goal for decades of the hunting lobby and the birding groups, and this is why the Mute is being vilified. It's the bird associated with love, a classic ballet and people don't want to hunt it they way they do Trumpeters.

However, there is no “sin” attributed to the Mute Swan that does not apply to the Trumpeter. The species have identical lifestyles and habits.The Trumpeter Swan and Mute Swan have identical life habits; therefore it is completely illogical to villify and eradicate one species while revering and protecting the other. As for the aggression factor, it was noted in several pages from Trumpeter Swan Society meetings, one of which was written by the ex-President of the group (all USF&W and state DEP, DNR guys, by the way) that Trumpeters kill baby ducks, grown ducks and geese and will maim or kill Mute Swans. Another paper was written by Joe Johnson, head swan biologist at Kellogg bird sanctuary at U of Michigan. He was like a proud father, talking about the Trumpeters breaking Mute Swan's legs, and he comments "My money is always on the Trumpeter, in a swan fight."). There is also a famous photo of a Trumpeter Swan attacking and shaking the wheels of a small plane - something no Mute Swan has ever done.

In Maryland, where all the trouble started, in Hill vs. Norton, a district court case concerning saving the Mutes, the Federal Court was given an Environmental Impact Study by USF&W, stating the charges, repeated like a mantra. That study was thrown out of court as "Junk Science." and the judge demanded that USF&W do a legitimate NEPA study (an environmental assessment that takes several years of thorough investigation of all factors). Since they knew that a NEPA study would permanently prove that the swans are relatively harmless, USF&W instead got The Audubon Society (primarily a hunting organization now) and the Nature Conservancy (ditto) to lobby for them to change the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to exclude the Mute Swans. Maryland's Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, to get the backing of hunting buddies, tagged a Bill to change the Migratory Bird Treaty Act onto the national debt, an Omnibus Budget Bill, with more than 5,000 special interest add-ons. Gilchrest's Bill sought to remove all protection for any bird thought to be non-native, no matter how long the species had been here, but he was really only after the Mute Swan. Without a vote, on the last day, in the last hour of the year 2004, the Bill passed. President Bush signed it into law without ever knowing this amendment was there.

Three thousand Mute Swans have been killed in Mr. Gilchrest's state, alone. Another thousand in Connecticut, another fifteen hundred in Wisconsin, Washington State has been killing them on sight for years, New Hampshire and Vermont, which had a total of fourteen Mute Swans statewide, removed them all. Michigan is relentless in destroying these swans, although many lake communities have been fighting back. Michigan has no Mute Swan data of its own - it uses Maryland's data, which is interesting, inasmuch as Michigan has over 11,000 natural lakes and Maryland does not have one.
Jan. 24, 2014, 7:45 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:

Here is a perfect example of how facts were distorted to destroy the Mute Swan's reputation: Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had repeatedly explained that Mute swans have only a “negligible” impact on the Chesapeake. Then they tried to change their story and came out with claims that the Mute swans kill off eelgrass, which is used by the other waterfowl. However, there have been three WORLDWIDE die-offs of eelgrass since 1900. It is a cyclical thing. The eelgrass can also be killed by a four degree temperature rise in the water, pollutants, and, since it grows in shallow water, heavy boat usage and fast boat speeds, as well as dredging and trawling. The Chesapeake Bay has 2.5 MILLION birds go through each year. 3,500 Mute swans were not destroying anything. Many of the other waterfowl eat eelgrass. The Chesapeake Bay has never once passed even the minimum standards of the Clean Water Act; it has had phosphorous bomb testing in the 1920s, dumping by paper companies and other industry, the development of its shoreline, with accompanying over-fertilization and thus runoff and pollutants, and pig and chicken farms right on the shore - but its pollution problems were coming from Swans? Well, the Swans are all gone now, killed off, and the pollution persists.

If the Mute Swan is so destructive, how come we are not hearing similar stories in the other countries where these swans live? The Mute swans have always been in Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Poland, all the former Soviet States, they migrate to India, China, the Mediterranean and northern Africa and yet NOT ONE of those countries has ever had the kind of swan problems the US Fish and Wildlife Service and DNR claim that we have here in the States. There are 20,000 Mute swans in tiny little Denmark, and 22,000 in Britain, and they have no problems. The environment and predators are similar, so what is wrong here? One thing might be in other countries, people are educated to respect the wildlife.

I think it is obscene and outrageous to slaughter one of the most interesting and magnificent birds on this planet, a bird that has been immortalized in classical music and one of the most beloved ballets in the world. There is no argument that can be made and no statistic that can be manufactured to justify the killing plan that is proposed.
Jan. 24, 2014, 7:45 pm
Bob from Gerritsen Beach says:
To Arlene Steinberg,
Do you really think the politicians in Albany have the mental fortitude to read a statement as long as yours explaining why they are wrong?
This proposal is so preposterous and absurd, I could only imagine this is some kind of political diversion to hide their ineptness.
Good luck.
Jan. 24, 2014, 8:39 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:
Bob - The politicians ANYWHERE do not read or care what people think, on ANY topic. I did not write my statement for them, I wrote it so people would know what is really going on behund this idea, because I'bve been active in fighting this issue for 8 years. States have been slaughtering these swans for years in secret - but they have not been able to keep the lid on it now. People do not know that this has been going on. They are often told 'The swans flew away."

In Michigan, the DNR actually went into someone's home in a lakefront community and shot a family of swans right through the living room window in front of the family, which was so traumatized by this they are still in treatment. What right has any government agency got to come into your home and do that? We are not talking about Al Quaida operatives living in your backyard - we are talking about a bird.

In some communities, the DEP and DNR come around with meetings full of propaganda and try to paint these swans as evil as possible, to get the public onboard with the killing program. When confronted by the public, it is amazing how foolish the government agencies look. They literally cannot back up their artificial facts with anything. In one, meeting, they were made to look so incompetent that they ran out of there fast.

There is big hunting money behind this, so please don't underestimate the government. Always follow the money trail - that is what most everything is always really about.
Jan. 24, 2014, 9:01 pm
Sheila Bolin from Kissimmee, Florida says:
I am the CEO/President of the Regal Swan Foundation, Inc., a non-profit with the mission of providing humane treatment and veterinary care of swans throughout the world through research, education, veterinary care, conservation and swan product development.

The idea that the Mute Swan is an non-native, invasive, aggressive, environment destroying species is one of the largest hoaxes ever perpetuated on the U.S. taxpayer. The real reason for wanting to kill the Mute Swans is to bring back the larger Trumpeter Swan so that federal and state Wildlife Services can implement a "Trophy Waterfowl" permit and increase their coffers which are significantly hurting with budget cuts.

We have researched swans, specifically Mute Swans for the past 14 years and our veterinary staff for more than 40 years. Most of the misinformation that has been placed in the media and other sites have gone relatively unquestioned.

But, here are the facts:

Mute Swans are defensive, not aggressive and will protect their families, just as a Trumpeter Swan or other wildlife species.

Mute Swans are native as there were actual fossils related to the birds found in the western U.S. and listed in the fossil record. However, someone decided that the birds could be removed for the eventual replacement of Trumpeters for hunting purposes, and the Mute Swan was listed as a non-native and removed from the Federal Migratory Bird Act in 2005. This removal was totally done without the approval of the American people which was supposed to have occurred under federal law. However, the removal was buried in bills that no one read and Congress eventually passed the bill removing the Mute Swan from the Act.

Mute Swans weigh approx. 30 lbs and eat approx. 8 lbs of aquatic vegetation daily. The Trumpeter weighs approx. 40-45 lbs (hence Trophy Waterfowl) and eats approx. 20 lbs of aquatic vegetation, twice as much as the Mute. Trumpeter Swans will also chase other waterfowl and will easily kill a Mute Swan so they are not being displaced by the Mute Swans.

Mute Swans were sanctioned by the U.S. government in the 70's as the International Symbol of World Peace. The government is violating its own sanctioning by allowing the killing of the birds. This is eradication is going to be extremely embarrassing for New York, as the home of the United Nations and having Swan Boats in Central Park. What do you think tourists are going to think about coming to New York when they are killing the International Peace Symbol? Do you think they are going to continue to spend money on riding in the swan boats because the real swans have been massacred?

Mute Swans are a Sentinel species. Meaning, the birds offer a look at the environment and warn of problems such as lead poisoning, other heavy metals, fertilizers and bacteria. Under EPA law, sentinel or (indicator species) cannot be killed. Several papers and theses have been presented in 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2014 supporting that the Mute Swan is a Sentinel Species, yet the government keeps allowing them to be killed throughout the U.S. What happens when you eradicate this early alarm system and you cannot intervene before the entire environment collapses? Hunting of Trumpeter Swans in the future because they are overpopulated, killing an entire species and upsetting the delicate balance of nature will be the result.

It is time that the U.S. taxpayer says NO MORE! Monies should be used for cleaning wetlands and other habitats that have been polluted from animal waste run-off from farms (which is actually where most of the bacteria occurs in the Chesapeake Bay instead of Mute Swans as other research has shown), fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.

It is time that our state and federal wildlife, agriculture and environmental services be held accountable for taxpayer money waste, time to require that they develop true wildlife management policies instead of the current massacre vs management protocols.

Sheila Bolin, M.S.
CEO/President, The Regal Swan Foundation, Inc.
Jan. 24, 2014, 9:35 pm
Mark Konemann from Australian tourist says:
Environment protection authority - that says it all - direct opposite - green is the new red
Jan. 24, 2014, 10:05 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:
A great thank you to The Regal Swan for lending its knowledgeable voice to this issue and confirming that the real reason to kill the Mute Swan (ironically listed as one of the 3 most beloved birds in the United States) is to replace it with the Trumpeter species as the next trophy bird in in hunting.

The "war against the Mute Swan," as described by Ruth Gale, of the Trumpeter Swan Society, was originally launched to announce a program to kill off Mutes in Yosemite on the basis that they might compete for habitat with the larger, more aggressive Trumpeter swans. The Trumpeter Swan Society is a hunting organization whose goal has always been to supplant the Mute swans with the Trumpeters with the goal of hunting the Trumpeters. The Society is peopled by many state and federal agency people, most in retirement, and has been funded for many years by U.S. tax money. Their original goal was to reestablish populations of Trumpeters in their historic range, but that changed, to putting them everywhere from coast to coast and creating a new "trophy bird," the largest waterfowl on this continent, to which Harvey Nelson, then president of the Society, agreed. Mute swans were to be "neutered and pinioned and placed in parks," a one generation extinction on this continent. U.S. Federal funds are, at this moment, being used to grow a small hunting organization headed by Scott Petrie (see Longpoint Website, "history") on the northern side of the Great Lakes, at Long Point, to promulgate and promote the extinction of Mute swans for the benefit of the new "trophy bird," whose life patterns are very similar to the Mutes.

It is not merely protesting the killing of the Mute swan that we should be doing - we should be protesting the sheer perversion of law by a hunting minority not representative of the will of the majority of the public. “We don't have to listen to the mob," is a quote from Mr. Throckmorton, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, immediately after more than 3,000 pro-swan letters were received and only 30 from the anti-swan people in a Call for Public Comment for the Federal Register in 2004 (a mandatory 2-week public comment period they tried to conceal from the public), when this issue first began in maryland, as per my po3-part posts above giving the history of this .

We, the people, are the mob.
Jan. 26, 2014, 1:56 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:
It is very important for people to sign this petition and also to comment on the DEC site, as explained below.

PLEASE SIGN & SHARE - this has been going on inother states for the last 8-9 years. Now NY is trying to kill their swans. This is a very long-range, very well-funded government/special interest campaign going back decades. We need a lot of signatures on this petition AND we need people to also send their comments for the government comment period. You can submit your comments as follows (it is easy, PLEASE do this!):

Comments on the draft mute swan plan may be submitted both by email and in writing through January 31, 2014.
If submitting by email: fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us (type "Swan Plan" in the subject line).

If writing, mail to: NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754.
Jan. 26, 2014, 5:01 pm
Arlene Steinberg from Brooklyn says:
Sorry, for some reason the petition site was missing from my above post - here it is - please sign and share:

Jan. 26, 2014, 5:03 pm
Yvonne from Brighton says:
Do not exterminate swans
Have u list ur minds
Shame on u

The blood will not wash so easy
Stop the madness

Save the swans
God help these humans see clearly
Jan. 27, 2014, 4:23 pm
Yvonne from Brighton says:
Don't do it

Shame on u

We luv the swans
Jan. 27, 2014, 6:52 pm
kelly from billerica MA says:
This is discusting and inhumane. I have spent the last 5 years with the same pair of mute swans where I live and in my daily observation they exist peacefully with the geeses and ducks and have in fact made the environment here better! I have pictures of the pond before their arrival as well as many pictures of them coexisting with other species. These are intelligent sweet birds and it is senseless to irraticate them. Is this is really about government funding to bring back the trumpeter swan you should be ashamed of yourselves. These are sweet innocent animals. Do not kill them!
Jan. 29, 2014, 3:31 am
Diane Canelas from Chelmsford, MA says:
I can't agree to destroy any living thing!
Jan. 29, 2014, 2:24 pm
Lee Ann Murphy from Chelmsford says:
Please don't destroy what God created. Leave these innocent birds alone.
Jan. 29, 2014, 2:33 pm
Starr from New Hampshire says:
Please don't kill these birds!
Jan. 29, 2014, 5:36 pm
Henry Finkelstein from Sheepshead Bay says:
Government has made it clear that it wants to eliminate, eradicate and exterminate the Mute Swan . In order to carry out their dirty work ,they will carry out this mission one night between 12 Midnight and dawn so they can not be stopped. They are gutless and totally lacking compassion for any living creature. They are totally inhumane even if they supposedly environmentalists. My guess is that the swans are preventing some very profitable enterprise from being constructed.
Feb. 1, 2014, 4:58 pm
K from Brooklyn says:
I visit sheepshead bay's swans every so often, and not only do they belong there, but they are anything but aggressive and dangerous. They're in a gated off area that protects both people and swans, and not once have they ever jumped out of the water to attack anyone. They get along with other birdlife along the river too-the ducks, geese, herons and gulls of the area cruise along happily alongside the swans. Everyone loves them, especially the tourists, so why kill them?
Aug. 13, 2014, 5 am

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