First a giraffe, next the swans?   Maybe.

According to the NY Times, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wants to get rid of long-time bird immigrants, the European mute swan, and “has declared war” on the elegant waterfowl.  Deeply unsettled by this story, I decided to download the draft proposal and read for myself.  Okay, it’s still unsettling (sensitive readers, be advised) and this story doesn’t mention the deadline for public input to this process– February 21, 2014.  So if you want to weigh in on this issue, now’s the time to do so.  Meanwhile, here’s my take.

Okay, I get that introduced species can present formidable and even noxious environmental impacts but where in our list of pressing global problems should a quandary like the swan be ranked?  In these days of limited public resources is promoting the killing of beautiful animals really a good way to spend tax dollars?

Yes, I realize that swans compete with other wildlife in a battle for habitat.  But even though I love ducks it bothers me that some agency has decided to privilege them over their web-footed relatives.  Maybe I’m squeamish but it disturbs me that the state can create such a clinical value system and then act on it in a broadly lethal manner.  And, by the way, is it necessary to eradicate all free-ranging mute swans in New York?  If even possible, the goal seems rather extreme.  As in the even thornier case of humans vs. whitetail deer, wouldn’t a judicious removal of those in sensitive areas be more reasonable?  The report itself says that these swans are “largely non-migratory” and the two downstate populations “have stabilized during the last decade” so management rather than blanket elimination seems like a better solution.  If, as the DEC says, the number of mute swans has increased most quickly in the Lake Ontario area and “likely originated” from stock in Canada, wouldn’t a targeted regional/international effort make the most sense?  (And why do I hear a tune from South Park over that last sentence?)

Then there’s the difficult topic that others have raised: immigration status.  Introduced purposefully in the 1800’s for their aesthetic appeal (and not stowaways like other more harmful invaders), you have to wonder at what point does a non-native like this swan get to become native?  Should it be 100 years?  Two hundred years?  Never?  If you start with the swan, do you move on to starlings?  To the House Sparrow?  The pigeon?*

It’s true, of course,  I have a personal affinity for waterfowl and swans could be considered the ne plus ultra of the downy class.  (You’ve heard of duck and goose down–there used to be something called swan down, too.  Before we stopped harvesting swans, that is.**)  In fact, in pre-revolutionary France, swans were strictly protected by the king, and they’re still a majestic presence on the Seine.  Clearly, there’s something special about these impressive creatures that touches people deeply.  Maybe it’s their remarkable beauty paired with incredible power.   Swans are strong–their wings, in flight, like a feathered army.  And I’m not downplaying their capacity to intimidate or even harm, especially when protecting their young, but even the DEC describes the “potential for injury” as “low”.  Is this on par with the level of danger presented by a mountain lion, a bear, a wolf?  Here in Westchester we’ve apparently agreed to live carefully with our new coyote neighbors so why are we drawing the line at swans?  Could it be because there really are rather few of them and they’re relatively easy to capture?

When we first moved to New York, my then-second grader and I would rejoice in sporadic sightings of swans in a creek we passed on our way to school.  In our town, these birds are rare enough to be pleasurable and common enough that they may glide over to you if you’re walking along the water’s edge.  Like the folks in the article, we, too, named “our” swans and followed their seasonal progress, including the delightful appearance of cygnets from time to time.

Look, I’m a strong supporter of environmental protections so to be at odds with the DEC on this topic feels rather awkward.  I am fully in agreement that an education program to the general public is in order.  Management and removal where health and safety issues arise is also reasonable.  But I really hope I’m nowhere nearby if the day comes that they take the swans.  It’s not a picture I want to remember nor a sound I want to hear.  It would be tough to even walk past that creek knowing that no matter when I look for them, the swans won’t be there.  Ever.

If we’re searching for destructive invasive species, maybe we should look in the mirror first.  Humans send microbeads willy-nilly into watersheds.  We fritter away endless kilowatts blogging, tweeting, gaming and checking the weather.***.  We level mountains, control rivers, spill radiation into oceans– who are we to judge the swan?  As Elizabeth Kolbert explains in her new book, “The Sixth Extinction”, human beings wreak incredible havoc in all kinds of ecosystems.  Why do we single out this one bird for its impacts and not deal with our own?  Is it because they’re low-lying fruit in a fruitless effort?  Are we putting our finger in a dike that already spilled over?  Can’t there be a better result from this cold calculus?

Who will speak for the mute swan?

Wait.  I think I just did.






*Talk about your environmental impacts!
**Swans are a protected species.  Yes, that’s ironic.
***Or maybe that’s just me…



NYSDEC accepting comments through February 21, 2014:
Subject Line: Swan Plan



Copyright 2014, Lori Fontanes