Graceful menace: States take aim at non-native swans

With its snow-white plumage and elegant posture, mute swans are exalted in European ballets and fairy tales as symbols of love and beauty. But to many wildlife biologists, they are aggressive and destructive invaders in U.S. habitats and must be wiped out.

Native to Europe, the mute swan has multiplied in New York, the upper Midwest and along the Atlantic coast since it was imported in the 1800s to adorn parks and opulent estates. Citing threats to native wildlife, plants and unwary humans, six states now have swan-removal policies that range from egg-shaking to shooting or gassing adult birds.

New York is now on the third draft of its anti-swan program. While less lethal than the original 2013 plan calling for eliminating all of the state’s free-ranging mute swans by 2025, it has nonetheless drawn angry squawks from animal lovers who just want the birds to be left alone.

“We abhor the plan,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Connecticut-based Friends of Animals. “We think it’s attitude, not good science, that’s driving their agenda.”

Most of the state’s estimated 1,700 mute swans are in the New York City area, with a smaller population on Lake Ontario. Like zebra mussels and Asian longhorned beetles, mute swans are classified in New York as nuisance invaders. Biologists say they deplete and damage aquatic vegetation with their voracious feeding, leaving less food and cover for other waterfowl and fish.

Unlike North America’s native tundra and trumpeter swans, mute swans — named for being less vocal than other swans — aren’t migratory, have orange rather than black bills and hold their necks in graceful S-curves. They’re also far more comfortable around humans, gliding regally across urban ponds with gray offspring trailing dazzling white parents.

“I see them in Prospect Park when I walk my dog or run,” said Jane Seymour, a Friends of Animals employee who lives near the Brooklyn park that has about a dozen mute swans. “People get close to them and take pictures. They really are an attraction.”

But there is an ugly side.

Michigan’s wildlife agency calls mute swans “one of the world’s most aggressive waterfowl species,” attacking native trumpeter swans, loons, ducks and other waterfowl. The agency says it gets reports every year of mute swan attacks on canoeists, kayakers and people who get too close to shoreline nests.

The mute swan population in Michigan rose from 5,700 to over 15,000 in just 10 years before management efforts were…

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