Skip to main content

Killing swans is a bad idea

By Carl Safina
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
New York's plan to exterminate mute swans is a stupid idea, says Carl Safina.
New York's plan to exterminate mute swans is a stupid idea, says Carl Safina.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New York's state environmental agency drafted a plan to exterminate mute swans
  • Carl Safina: If swans are problem for native ducks, let hunters shoot them
  • He says mute swans are not a serious threat; they're symbolic, beautiful and well-liked
  • Safina: Exterminating the swans is a dumb idea; you can voice your opinion to the state

Editor's note: Carl Safina is a MacArthur Fellow, Pew Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow, a professor at Stony Brook University and founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include "Song for the Blue Ocean," "The View From Lazy Point" and "A Sea in Flames." He is host of the 10-part series "Saving the Ocean," which can be seen free at PBS.org.

(CNN) -- "Oh, look at all the swans," she said.

I was driving my daughter to her boyfriend's house. About 20 mute swans were floating in the shallows near the shore of Conscience Bay in the Long Island Sound. I wondered whether, in all good conscience, I should ruin my daughter's swan swoon.

"Take a good look at them," I said, "because the state plans to exterminate them."

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

"What?" she looked stricken. "All the swans in the whole bay?"

"All the mute swans in the whole state," I said.

"WHY?" she demanded. "They're my favorite bird."

"The reason is, they're not native. They come from Europe. And they eat a lot of vegetation. And they're territorial, so they give some native ducks and geese a hard time. Also, during breeding season, they hiss and bluff, and that scares some people."

"Those are stupid reasons," she said, demanding to know who is planning to kill them.

I told her it's the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"You can't be serious. The department of conservation is going to kill all of my favorite birds?" She was silent for a moment and then brightened and asked, "Are you fooling me?"

"Not fooling. Why are they your favorite?"

"Well, because, I mean, they're monogamous --"

Lots of birds, actually, are monogamous. And lots of monogamous birds color outside the lines. I kept silent, like the mute swans, on this point. We were, after all, going to her boyfriend's house, and monogamy is something I support.

"-- and they're, y'know, I mean look at how graceful they look out there. And, like, they start out ugly and then grow up to be so beautiful. It's the whole ugly duckling thing. I mean, I don't have any substantial reasons; they're just my favorite."

I have favorite birds too, and I don't have any better reasons for why my favorites are my favorites.

Alexandra kept staring at the swans. "You should write something about this," she said.

"I should do a lot of things," I reminded both of us.

I kind of agree with the department's main reason for exterminating New York state's resident mute swans (by the way, that's the species' name, because they're usually silent). Non-native species often pose problems. I just have two problems with the plan. One, I don't think mute swans are really too much of a threat to anything or anyone in New York state. They live mainly on Long Island and the lower Hudson, with a few on the Great Lakes. They number just around 2,200 birds, total, in the whole state. Not exactly a plague.

The state says that mute swans are a problem for native waterfowl. I see native waterfowl, and their ducklings and goslings, on many of the same ponds where I see swans. Native waterfowl, by the way, that the state permits hunters to kill.

Here's what hunters in New York state are allowed: "The daily limit of 6 ducks includes all species of mergansers, and may include 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be hens), 1 black duck, 3 wood ducks, 2 pintail, 2 redheads, 2 scaup, 2 canvasback, 4 scoters or 2 hooded mergansers."

I'd like to know whether any mute swans kill six ducks per day or even per year. Mute swans have no direct interactions with most sea ducks -- I don't even think they compete for food -- but hunters have a "daily limit of 7 sea ducks (scoters, eiders and long-tailed ducks) in addition to the regular duck bag in coastal waters of the Long Island Zone only." Note italics in the state regulations: Hunters may kill extra sea ducks only if they happen to be hunting in the part of the state where the sea is. Clever.

So who and what is the greater problem? And is there really a problem? Mute swans are territorial, and as near as I can tell, their own territoriality seems, in my casual observations, self-limiting. On the ponds I know, there's usually just one nesting pair. I think they themselves keep it that way by preventing other swans from nesting.

The state claims that their numbers are increasing. Assuming that's true, and assuming that's a problem, why not reduce their numbers by letting hunters shoot the swans that are purportedly causing the problem for native ducks, instead of shooting native ducks? I know, of course, that such logic is dead on arrival, but I'm just sayin'.

So around Long Island where mute swans are such a problem for ducks, the lucky hunter can kill a baker's dozen of ducks daily. I am getting a mental image of a lineup of people who've killed too many ducks, with a mute swan standing among them. Hmm; who's the culprit?

By the way, sea ducks taste terrible to most people, and I've seen hunters kill them, collect them and throw them in the bushes. Often, they just shoot them and let them drift away on the tide. But to hear the state's explanation, you'd think that the problem for ducks is: mute swans.

The only other problem I have with the plan to exterminate the swans is, that is a very stupid idea. I mean that in the most supportive sense of the word, "stupid." For a public agency that needs public trust and support to attack birds with which people feel a symbolic bond is unwise.

Here's what I learned a long time ago by watching a venerable old conservation organization tear itself in half over an attempt to replace its much-loved generations-old logo: Never attack symbols unless you're sure you are right, you know you can win and you don't care about creating permanent enmity and resentment and alienating a lot of people.

The reason mute swans were brought here from Europe is, people really like them. People like them because they look beautiful, and they look beautiful because people can actually see them. We are surrounded by literally hundreds of species of native birds, many of them absolutely stunning, that people can't see because they are too hidden, too small, you need binoculars, they're in the treetops or you have to get out of your car. "To speak truly," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun." For them, there's mute swans. It's a start.

Non-native animals are often a terrible problem for native wildlife. But not always (honey bees come to mind). There's little that can be done about zebra mussels, starlings, Japanese barberry and most invasive aliens. Yet before we exterminate the ones we can truly bully, let's be sure they're really a problem. And let's be sure that utter extermination is really the best goal. Or else, like the mute swan itself, let us hold our peace.

Comments on the draft mute swan plan may be submitted today to the NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or by e-mail to: fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Safina.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT