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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mute Swans...Friend or Foe

Some people love em’.  Others consider them pests.  But most are more than a little confused.  Afterall, a swan is a swan, right?  And aren’t swans native to Michigan?  So, why should conservationists want them out of our state?

Mute swans have generated lots of controversy since scattered populations have exploded over the years.  They were imported to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800’s, desired because of their looks.  They were placed in zoos, garden pools, and ponds around the country, valued as sort of moving landscape ornaments.  But the graceful, white-feathered birds eventually escaped and established populations in several states.
Michigan’s mute swan population began with just one pair brought to Charlevoix County in 1919.  Now, Michigan has North America’s largest mute swan population with 15,500.  Continent-wide, mute swan numbers are now increasing by 5 to 10 percent each year.

All of the Great Lakes states have problems with mute swans.  They displace native trumpeter swans (a threatened species in Michigan), destroy wetland habitat, and sometimes even injure humans.  Mute swans will attack trumpeter swans and geese, preventing them from nesting.  The mute swans nest about three weeks earlier than trumpeters and defend large areas.  They may also attack swimmers and boaters.  Cuts, scrapes, bruises, or broken bones are the more common results of mute swan attacks on swimmers, beach walkers, and boaters.  But at least two humans have been killed by swans on the East Coast, and in Chicago in mid-April of this year, a 37-year-old man was knocked out of a kayak by a mute swan.  Witnesses watched as the swan continued to attack Anthony Hensley, who worked for Knox Swan & Dog which used swans to keep geese off ponds.  Hensley drowned as the swan continued to harass him. 
Mute swans also do serious damage by uprooting aquatic vegetation.  Even small flocks can reduce habitat for other waterbirds, muskrats, and fish over big areas.

The DNR is starting to whittle away at Michigan’s flock of mute swans, with an eye toward getting rid of at least 13,500 by 2030.  Some have already been shot, and the DNR is providing permits to residents to remove mute swan nests and destroy eggs.
Despite its destructive tendencies, the mute swan has its supporters.  There have been petition drives to thwart the DNR’s mute swan reduction plans.

“Many people enjoy viewing mute swans, but looks are deceiving in this case,” said Dennis Fijalkowski, Executive Director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.  “Protecting our natural resources from invasive exotic species has to trump any emotional ties to animals that simply look pretty.  Conservationists should support the DNR’s reasoned approach to control this destructive exotic species.”

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs

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