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."
Large, Lovely and Fierce
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."
In 2003, the Atlantic Flyway Council published a plan to reduce the population of mute swans from 14,000 to fewer than 3,000 birds over the next 10 years by either regulated public hunting or kills by wildlife officials.
But animal rights groups, including Fund for Animals, which spearheaded the successful federal case to stop Maryland officials from killing the swans in 2003, say the evidence against mute swans is weak.
"The argument that the mute swans are causing any damage is anecdotal at best," said Michael Markurian, president of the Fund for Animals. "They couldn't win their case in court. They could have appealed but instead, they simply asked Congress to give them a blank check to kill any non-native birds."
Any loss of grasses in the region, Markurian argues, is more likely due to man-made problems such as runoff from nearby chicken farms and industrial plants.
Same-Sex Swan Pairs?
He and other animal rights leaders also have a philosophical problem with the idea of killing invasive species. Environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, Environmental Defense and the American Bird Conservancy, have supported the idea of culling mute swans to protect native species. But Markurian argues that killing one animal to help another is "the height of arrogance," adding that "at some level, most of us are non-native."
In a paper published this spring in the Baltimore Journal of Environmental Law, Markarian and lawyer Jonathan Lovvorn point to alternative methods of stemming the mute swan population, which has grown to 3,600 in Maryland from five pet swans that were released in 1962.
They suggest, for example, that officials use egg addling, which involves rubbing swan eggs in corn oil to suffocate and kill the embryos inside. Another possibility, they say, is relocating the birds to other countries where they may be wanted. They even point to the suggestion of William Sladen, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, to pair the swans with same-sex partners.
"Because they are monogamous and mate for life, they will remain together and not reproduce," Markarian and Lovvorn wrote.
But McKnight argues the alternatives aren't effective enough, pointing out that the Maryland population continued to grow, despite egg addling efforts in 2002 and part of 2003. As for paring swans of the same sex, an April 2003 Maryland Department of Resources report said that even paired swans mate with other swans (of the opposite sex) when outside flocks enter their territory.
"Yes, the mute swan is beautiful, yes it's a fairy-tale creature, but it doesn't belong here," said McKnight. "It belongs in Europe. It's hard for people to understand that an animal this beautiful could be doing the damage it's doing."
Still, Nancy Vona, a neighbor of Koch on Lake Orion who also enjoys watching the birds, doesn't see the point.
"To me, they've been here so long already — so what if they're not indigenous," she said. "You can't force them out now."