sunday times: problematic charisma 2: mute swans

August 28, 2005

in Birds, Environmental issues, Urban issues

Swan_2 In a previous post, I wrote about the difficulty in using lethal control of White-tailed Deer because the public finds deer charismatic and engaging.  Another problem species that has many fans in the general public, confounding management, is the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). Mute Swans are not native to the U.S. and can have a profound impact on aquatic ecosystems.

  • They consume about 8 pounds of submerged aquatic vegetation each per day, wiping out local beds and reducing plant viability; they uproot and destroy much more vegetation than they end up eating.  These beds are critical to migrating and wintering native waterfowl, and many other aquatic organisms — and consequently the food chain — depend on this vegetation.
  • Because of their size and temperament they displace smaller native waterfowl from breeding and feeding areas, including state-threatened species of colonial waterbirds (terns and skimmers) on the Atlantic coast.

However, people consider them a symbol of peace and beauty, and do not understand that their burgeoning numbers often need to be controlled.

A fine example occurred recently in Michigan, where an aggressive male swan was slated to be captured and euthanized after creating havoc with users of personal watercraft (arguably one of the most useless and damaging things a person can put in the water, but I digress).  People went nuts, wanting to save the swan.  Believe it or not, there were at least two weeks of negotiation between the state Dept of Natural Resources, the governor’s office, and a representative of a General Motors executive who eventually was permitted to take the swan to his farm!  This long pow-wow followed a request by the sheriff’s office, who had to step in as neighbors drew battle lines amongst themselves.  What a colossal waste of time and resources.  If only people would devote this much passion towards something that would really count, like passing a green space millage instead of putting up a Wal-Mart.

This frippery pales in comparison with a situation that began in Maryland. Since Mute Swans are not native, they were not protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  When their population reached a critical mass in Chesapeake Bay, wildlife managers opted to cull 1500 birds.  In 2001, several animal rights organizations and individuals sued the USFWS, and the long and costly legal battle went back and forth and was not resolved until a recent amendment to the MBTA was passed excluding non-native species, and culling efforts were scheduled to commence this summer. Imagine the amount of time and money USFWS had to spend just to allow management of a destructive non-native species!  Is this what people purporting to care about the environment really want our strapped wildlife divisions spending their precious resources on?

The lawsuit blamed pollution — from chicken farms — rather than the swans for damaging vegetation. This is undoubtedly true, but you can’t deny that 1500 swans eating 8 lbs a day = a loss of well over 4 million pounds of vegetation a year just to consumption, not counting uprooting, from a small percentage of the Chesapeake population. This clearly stresses an already fragile system, and removal of Mute Swans is a less complicated problem to solve than further regulation of chicken farms. (It is also available to wildlife managers, whereas chicken farm regulation is beyond their purvey.)

This argument was put forth because you can’t base a lawsuit on the major motivator behind this kind of defense of animals, which is anthropomorphic emotional claptrap.  The Michigan swan had to be saved, cried its supporters, because it was only being a good father!

There are other solutions to managing Mute Swans other than killing them.  Relocation just puts the problem elsewhere. Egg addling (shaking eggs to kill the embryos, but leaving them on the nest for adults to incubate) can be effective, but is very time and resource consuming, and swans can be very aggressive towards humans.  These methods are just not as practical, economical, and effective in the long run as culling.  I’m no heartless, unsentimental robot, but I also understand the need to put aside feelings and understand ecological processes, the most feasible way to manage them, and realize that we have fiddled with our world too much to NOT manage them.

(Warning: Soapbox interlude ahead.)

Going one step further, I see this as just another sad example of how Americans seem to be increasingly unable or unwilling to apply any sort of brain power to understanding issues.  I call this the “BC’s BJ Syndrome.”  People completely vilified Bill Clinton for his affair, but are complacent in tolerating Dubya’s deceptions and disillusions that have resulted in a hideous war.  I felt it boiled down to the fact that people understand a blow job, but they cannot or will not get their heads around foreign policy.  If people want to remain ignorant dopes, that’s their right.  But when collective intellectual laziness — resulting in decisions being made on emotion rather than reason — endangers our future, such as a lack of critical assessment of our foreign policy or a failure to teach our children science rather than mythology, then I take it personally.

We have a big problem, and further discussion and solutions deserve their own post.  To be continued.

More resources (on swans):

TroutGrrrl August 28, 2005 at 5:07 pm

Here here! clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap

Anonymous September 5, 2007 at 10:29 am

Well put. I applaud your piece, not only because I was once attacked by one of those peaceful, serene creatures, but because I am concerned about the impact on Chesapeake Bay ecology.

Two big signs flank both sides of the Annapolis Bay Bridge calling on the governor to help save the "bay" swan. The misleading use of "bay" leads people to assume the swan is native.

Additionally, these efforts are being led by the Humane Society of America. An organization with no vested interest in the health of the bay.

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