It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to wipe out wild mute swans, those elegant creatures with curved necks and orange beaks who fluff up their back feathers like sails and grace Toronto's waterfront year round. But that's exactly what the prestigious Bird Studies Canada (BSC) is prescribing. The organization, which boasts of its feel-good dedication to all birds, has made an extraordinary plea to the U.S. and Canadian governments to totally eradicate every single wild mute swan in North America. Shoot 'em all.
In a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dated July 25, 2003, and obtained by NOW, BSC executive director Michael Bradstreet wrote, "It is our desire that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service collectively decide not to support the maintenance of viable populations of this invasive species and that they ultimately coordinate their efforts to eliminate free-flying feral populations of mute swans throughout North America."
The U.S. wildlife service hates mute swans ostensibly because the birds are eating and uprooting too much vegetation required by native waterfowl in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. Vermont has already shot most or all of its mute swans. The species, found in Eurasia, is not native to North America. Mute swans are escapees, having made their way into the wild here from parks, estates and zoos where they've commonly been kept for at least a century and a half. Slowly at first, as always happens in such instances, and then more rapidly, a free-living population of swans became established in eastern North America. They are now a fixture on Toronto's waterfront.
Chesapeake Bay is in one of the most heavily populated and industrialized regions in North America. Long before current levels of pollution, dredging, siltation and other disturbances, there were three recorded die-offs of the submerged vegetation that feeds waterfowl in the bay. The latest was in the early 1930s, decades before mute swans were an issue.
There's another dimension to this odd eradication move: the whole question of the mute swan's cousin, the trumpeter. This later species, also common on our shoreline, has a long, black beak and is native to western North America. It was slaughtered by hunters and trappers (swan skins were part of the fur trade) to such an extent that it was once declared extinct!
While the mute is being targeted, the trumpeter is actually being re-introduced in a move backed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. In terms of their ecological impact, the two are identical. Why is one species deemed odious while the other is prized? The answer is that hunters prefer the trumpeter swan, and the mute swan competes with it.
Many waterfowl hunters are emotive romantics who see the trumpeter as the "right" swan because it's a native North American species - and one that is far likelier than the mute swan to present a sporting target in flight.
I think the evidence that trumpeters bred this far east is thin, at best, a view shared by BSC's Bradstreet, who in a letter to me wrote, "I remain skeptical of just how common they [trumpeter swans] were at settlement or even before, and the archaeological data just suggests that the [trumpeters] were a trade item." Other than a few bones, there is scant evidence of early trumpeter swans coming as far east as Ontario, but now they are being bred and released even in New Jersey.
Is the Canadian Wildlife Service likely to heed the BSC's advice to shoot mute swans? A CWS spokesperson says no. This country is committed to following the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which would allow lethal culling in specific instances where mute swans were causing problems that less draconian measures could not resolve. But he could think of nothing damaging to the environment that a mute swan might do that a trumpeter would not.
Our wildlife service, part of Environment Canada, has a different history than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and lacks its inherent economic incentive to push hunting. The U.S. service receives an 11 per cent excise tax on all firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows, and a 10 per cent excise tax on handguns. The cash raised goes directly into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's conservation fund, with 92 per cent going to state wildlife agencies, apportioned by how many hunting licences they sell! (The trumpeter isn't the only native Canadian swan Americans hunt. They also go after our tundra swans, which appear in Toronto, sparingly, on migration.)
Nonetheless, there could still be a mass kill if the trumpeters are successfully established in the east. Then it will be just a matter of time before they're blamed for having "exponential" population growth, threatening farm crops and competing with other wildlife, so they will "have to be harvested" by hunters. Last week I fired off a 22-page letter to each BSC director explaining that there is nothing that mute swans are accused of that trumpeter swans don't do to an equal or greater degree. Such accusations against the mute swan are silly and hypocritical.