In the immortal ballet ‘Swan Lake’ composed by Russia’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a princess named Odette is turned into a swan and dies at the end. More than 140 years after Tchaikovsky wrote his masterpiece, real-life swans in the state of New York will face death or resettlement – at the hands of the government. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has determined that wild mute swans are a “prohibitive invasive species” who pose a grave threat to humans, to other creatures and their habitats, and must be culled. Renowned for the grace, elegance and beauty by the general public, mute swans, the DEC asserted, are extremely aggressive waterfowl that attack native ducks and geese, among other examples of destructive behavior.
“Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including exhibiting aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality and potential hazards to aviation,” the DEC stated. "Swan feces contain high levels of coliform bacteria so the presence of large flocks could impact waters used for drinking, swimming and shell-fishing.”
The department temporarily plans to kill all of the estimated 2,200 mute swans in the state by the year 2025. The methods of extermination range from shooting the birds to capturing and gassing them. Swan eggs would also be oiled to prevent chicks from hatching. "Lethal control methods will include shooting of free-ranging swans and live capture and euthanasia in accordance with established guidelines for wildlife," the DEC’s draft proposal said.
The New York Times reported that the plan has the general support of conservationists and bird-watchers, but has earned the outrage of animal rights activists and some park aficionados. Indeed, the mass killing of such a beautiful animal that has become a symbol for romantic love, puts state officials in an uncomfortable position. “I knew there would be a lot of passionate defenders of swans, but we can’t base our management policies just on the aesthetics of a bird when it has such negative impacts,” Bryan Swift, the conservation agency’s statewide waterfowl specialist, told the Times.
Paul D. Curtis, an associate professor of wildlife science in the department of natural resources at Cornell University, explained to the Times why mute swans pose a threat to their surroundings: they destroy underwater vegetation, which hurts the habitat for fish and waterfowl and disrupts the food chain. In order the appease some of the anger of critics, the state, which will release a final plan of extermination later this year, may allow some mute swans to live on private property as long as the owners prevent the birds from escaping and from reproducing.
But swans are hugely popular with a wide swath of the public – indeed, people come to admire and feed the stunningly beautiful waterfowl in places like Prospect Park and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. “If they [the swans] were born here, they should be considered native by now,” an angry Michael Vangi of Bayside, Queens, told the Times. Vangi’s colleague Joseph LoRe, concurred: “I’m not an environmentalist, but that seems kind of messed up. Is that how we treat immigrants?”
But, according to the Times, the public’s love of feeding these water birds with bread crumbs and other delicacies is what has caused a population explosion in the swans – their numbers have tripled in the past thirty years. Most of the state’s swans currently live on Long Island, although there are significant concentrations in Lake Ontario and the Rochester area.
GooseWatch NYC, an animal rights group, has denounced the cull plan and also started a petition on Change.org called “Stop New York State’s Swan Killing Plan,” which has received more than 20,000 thus far. “Killing New York’s mute swans and other wildlife is wrong – it is cruel, and not how New Yorkers want our taxpayer dollars spent,” GooseWatch said in its petition. “The [rationale] used to support killing these animals [is] deeply flawed. New Yorkers value our wildlife, and cherish the free-living animals we share our environment with. We believe these creatures should be protected, not slaughtered.”
GooseWatch commented that one of the reasons the DEC gave for its decision – that the birds sometimes show aggressive behavior and even attack humans – ignores the fact that such incidents “are so rare and near physically impossible that the government insults the public's intelligence by presenting this as a major justification for extermination,” adding that if people approach a swan nest “they might get aggressive and hiss and flap their wings to protect their young, but this is a greatly exaggerated threat.”
GooseWatch further stated that since mute swans have resided in New York since the late 1800s (introduced by European settlers), they can no longer be considered a “non-native, invasive species,” as the DEC cited. “How long must a species inhabit a land before it can rightly call it home?,” the activist group asked. "It's just outrageous to try to exterminate an entire species that has been living in the state for more than 150 years," GooseWatch founder David Karopkin told Agence France Presse. "I've yet to find anyone who has been seriously injured by a mute swan. When they're being aggressive it's often in relation to them protecting their nest, their babies. I mean people need to have some common sense.”
Marlene Feuerring of Water Mill, Long Island, told NBC News that she has never been chased nor attacked by swans in 25 years of watching the birds. “Why would we want to kill wildlife?," she said. "I think they [the swans] are magnificent. I love them. They would all be heartbroken if these swans were shot."
However, one of the most prominent of all conservation groups, the Audubon Society, is likely to support the cull program, the Times noted. Mike Burger, director of conservation and science for Audubon New York, told the paper: “We are very comfortable moving forward with a position that is supportive of the DEC’s plan. It’s not something we do lightly. We have a general position that says we favor non-lethal control methods when possible. But in this case, there is a good basis for reaching a conclusion that in order to reduce the population to desired levels, lethal control is necessary.”
In the United Kingdom, mute swans are revered for their beauty and elegance and even enjoy protection from the crown. The North West Swan Study of Britain noted that for many centuries, mute swans were domesticated for food, however eventually they gained the title of "Royal Bird," granting them special status and have since become property of the crown. “It is quite possible that this domestication saved the swan [from] being hunted to extinction in Britain,” the Swan Study concluded.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.