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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.

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

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