shooting mute swans versus mute swans shooting blanks

January 30, 2007

in Birds,Environmental issues,Science,Urban issues

Via Invasive Species Weblog, a story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Wisconsin DNR will allow citizens in three southern counties in that state to “adopt” wild Mute Swans and spare them from approved lethal control measures, provided they pay to have them sterilized. [Holds head in hands and groans.]

I’ve previously written about the problem with Mute Swans, which are charismatic non-native invasive species. The state of Wisconsin implemented a successful Mute Swan control policy in 1997, the goal of which was to eliminate most of the state’s swans, especially because they were interfering with efforts to establish native Trumpeter Swans.

Once again, soft-headed soft-hearted citizens raised a stink.  A revision of the plan was approved in 2002: remove all free-flying wild Mute Swans except in two townships in Racine Co., because residents objected.  Now, 86-88% of the remaining swans in Wisconsin are in the three southeastern county region which includes Racine Co.

In December, there was a recommendation (pdf) made to the WI Natural Resource Board to continue the 2002 policy. According to the Journal Sentinel article, because more citizens objected it was instead decided to spare the swans in all three counties (versus just two townships) , as long as the birds are sterilized at citizen expense.

I see a number of problems with this “solution.”

1) Is subjecting swans to pursuit, capture, restraint, anesthesia, and surgery really a humane alternative? Chemical contraceptives are not commonly used on waterfowl, and those not involving capture and direct administration are not species-specific, with the risk of ingestion by other types of birds and animals.  Since the article mentions neutering by a vet, the option proposed must be surgical sterilization.

Surgical sterilization was attempted in Michigan, and was unsuccessful; all birds died from complications or infection. Swans do poorly under general anesthesia.  A USFWS report on control of feral Mallards also concluded that capture and surgical sterilization had a “high risk of fatal outcome” especially for hens. You can read more about these methods in this Maryland Mute Swan Task Force report.

However, if these citizens care so little about what’s good for the swans that they hand feed them white bread, then perhaps subjecting the birds to all that stress won’t be a deterrent.

2) Allowing some Mute Swans a reprieve allows them to continue to do environmental damage.

a) If a Mute Swan is sterilized and released, it will continue to eat up to eight pounds of vegetation daily for the rest of its natural life, which is up to 25 years in the wild. Ironically, one group of citizens that prompted the new spare-the-swan policy are the residents of Upper and Lower Phantom Lakes in Waukesha Co.  The lakes have designated “sensitive areas” in which the aquatic vegetation is critical or unique fish and wildlife habitat. One of the most important native aquatic plant species in the lakes is Vallisneria, or wild celery. This keystone species is very vulnerable to over-exploitation by Mute Swans.

So residents are trying to preserve native aquatic plants species, which coincidentally began to decline around the time Mute Swans began to inhabit the lakes.  They are fighting to preserve a non-native bird that is likely to be contributing to the decline of native species which they are also fighting to preserve.  By the way, part of the effort to preserve the aquatic habitats in Upper and Lower Phantom involves an aggressive nuisance plant management program.  Yet the rationale of some in opposition to the Mute Swan elimination policy (or any non-native species policy) was voiced in a public hearing: that “this country was founded with open arms for anyone as a person to come here and [that] also applied to animals” (hearing minutes in pdf).  But not plants, apparently, as non-native species are subject to chemical and mechanical controls.

b) Sterilization does not prevent nesting and consequent displacement of or aggression towards native species in the swans’ territory, including endangered Trumpeter Swans.

3) Is sterilization even an effective method of population control? Very little information. At least with Canada Geese, vasectomy can alter the male’s behavior (pdf), with the male allowing the female to mate with another male. One study of sterilized Canada Geese resulted in 12% of eggs still being fertile.

There is plenty of science behind the decision to remove Mute Swans from ecosystems.  There is no science, only sentiment, behind the idea to “save” them.  I think the swan adoption experiment, slated to run for a year, was merely a placating measure and that relatively few swans will “adopted.” It staggers me, however, that science cannot prevail in cases like these. Instead, wildlife agencies are tied up in hearings and court proceedings in every jurisdiction this comes up.  It’s completely ridiculous.

A reprint of a Ted Williams Audubon article on Mute Swans appears on his blog.


{ 9 comments }

Jenn January 30, 2007 at 2:55 pm

Excellent. I was hoping you would weigh in on this in detail.

I do not envy the lives the of wildlife officials charged with managing such charismatic invaders.

Roger B. January 30, 2007 at 4:44 pm

According to the RSPB, the Queen has a prerogative over all (mute) swans in England and Wales. This is usually interpreted as meaning that she is only person allowed to slaughter them for food.

Apparently she still maintains an officially appointed Swan Keeper. Perhaps he/she could be persuaded to come over and round-up America's problem swans. It could keep the royal freezers stocked for a few years!

John January 30, 2007 at 10:22 pm

Similar fights occur around anything involving control of Canada Geese of White-tailed Deer, as well. As I understand it, the contraception scheme has the double problem of not being sure if the process will work, especially for chemicals, but also making sure all individuals are sterilized. All it takes is two fertile individuals to keep the population growing.

Nick February 3, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Perhaps they could use X-ray sterilization? It's at least quicker and cheaper than surgical sterilization. However, I agree that the best means of getting rid of these pests (which have turned the bottoms of most nearby creeks into deserts) is the shotgun. It's cheap, it's simple, and it's effective.

Nuthatch February 3, 2007 at 3:16 pm

Hmm, I've not heard of x-ray sterilization used with birds. Part of the issue with swans, I think, is just the stress on them during capture, which is a difficult task even when they are injured and not as mobile. To top it off, the pair bond is quite strong, and it creates more stress for both birds when they are separated.

flick February 3, 2007 at 10:21 pm

Swan gumbo. Mmmmmm!

Nuthatch February 8, 2007 at 9:32 pm

I'd like my readers to know that I have deleted a comment from a civilian animal activist. First of all, the comment was over twice as long as the original post, and did not address the issue here, sterilizing swans rather than lethal control, but launched into a theory that Mute Swans are being eliminated in order to establish Trumpeter Swans as new "trophy" birds for hunters.

The author also contended that Mute Swans are native to North America, which is not true, and made an asinine (and disrespectful, considering my occupation) statement that "ornithology is not a science at all; it is bird watching, bird banding and bird killing and stuffing as specimens."

As I am on my way out of state for a wedding, I don't have time to counter all her points. And as I am familiar with her views and activities, I know that doing so would do nothing to convince her. I do want people to understand the issues surrounding Mute Swans, so I direct interested readers to the following resources:

– The Ornithological Council's background on the Maryland lawsuit and Migratory Bird Treaty Act amendment.
– An analysis of the lawsuit by the Michigan State's College of Law.
– The Maryland Mute Swan Task Force recommendations and links within.
– An overview (PDF) of Mute Swans in the lower Great Lakes, with references and resources, by a biologist at Long Point Bird Observatory (see also the LPBO page here which has links to other resources).

DNRogue February 25, 2007 at 2:49 am

I can tell you from inside experience that the Wisconsin DNR offer to allow adoption/neuterization of the mute swans was made just to appear to appease the residents of those counties. And they are not buying it. They are not an emotional or silly group of civilians; they are remarkably well-informed on this topic, they are making us look like incompetent bullies, and frankly, more than a few of us DNR officers privately agree with them. Also, I saw the letter briefly posted here from the animal activist before it was removed and whoever this person is has a pretty good grasp on the real deal.

patrick October 25, 2009 at 10:51 pm

i have swans they could be caught ,muscle clipped,and shipped to people who would give them good homes it be cheaper then a vet,id take some more ,

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