For Charles Koch, the two mute swans nesting near his home on Lake Orion, Mich. were like beautiful, long-necked pets. He and his wife liked watching the pair raise their young and glide in the water in front of his house. But earlier this month, the male swan was killed and the female went missing.
"It's just too bad," said Koch, who is retired. "They're very large, but they're pretty and they don't bother anybody."
Koch may have enjoyed watching the birds, but, as in many states, the mute swans nesting near his house were considered a nuisance. The 40-pound birds leave large droppings and chase jetskiers that zip around the bay. Most critically, in many parts of the country they devour vegetation that would otherwise feed and protect native species. So local Fish and Wildlife officials issued a permit to kill them.
On the Maryland shore of Chesapeake Bay and in other regions of the country, state officials would also like permission to kill the birds. They say the animals are eating their way through aquatic grasses that would otherwise support diverse populations of native wildlife. But a 2003 ruling by a federal judge has put a stop to the culling, saying the majestic, but non-native birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty.
Now a bill now awaiting a vote in Congress could change all that.
Under H.R. 4114, mute swans and other non-native species would be excluded from protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty and officials would be free to launch a strategy to shoot or euthanize thousands of the birds throughout the country.
"Right now, this species, which is very much damaging wildlife, is the most protected species in Chesapeake Bay," said Jonathan McKnight, associate director for invasive species at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. "Hunters can shoot duck, geese and doves, but they can't shoot these swans. It doesn't make sense."
If the enormous swans, with dark eyes, eight-foot wingspans, bright orange bills and gleaming white feathers, look like they flapped from the pages of a storybook, it's because they have.
About 500 of the birds were introduced from Europe and Asia to serve as lawn decorations at lofty mansions along the Hudson River in upstate New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The birds, as their name suggests, are mostly quiet birds, but they are nonetheless aggressive. Since their introduction a century ago, some birds escaped captivity and their descendants have spread and settled in quite nicely. Some say, too nicely.
Estimates show the bird's numbers have boomed to more than 14,000 in states along the East coast and the Great Lakes. McKnight says the birds chase off other, native species of birds, including terns and trumpeter and tundra swans. Plus, he says, the animals eat up to eight pounds of aquatic grasses a day, thereby dismantling the habitats of the blue crab and fishes.
And, unlike the native trumpeter and tundra swans, mute swans don't migrate, so the birds' relentless appetites take their toll on the grasses on a year-round basis.
"It's clear they have the ability to destroy these sea grass beds," says Christine Sousa, a Cornell University graduate student who is wrapping up research on the swan's behavior in Chesapeake Bay. "For the animals that live in the grasses, it's like deforestation."