Health & Environment

Sides meet in Albany to discuss the mute swan’s fate

A mute swan mother with her cygnets in East Marion. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
A mute swan mother with her cygnets in East Marion. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Stakeholders on both sides of a life-or-death debate met in Albany last Thursday to discuss the future of the mute swan, an invasive species on the cusp of widespread population growth in New York.

There are approximately 2,200 mute swans in the state, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which are expected to reproduce at a rate of 13 to 20 percent annually. 

In December, the state DEC announced a management plan aimed at eliminating free-ranging mute swans by 2025. Animal rights activists opposed the plan, questioning the quality of available data and whether mute swans should be a priority, given other environmental threats statewide.

See also: Lines being drawn as DEC takes aim at majestic swan

The outcry prompted the DEC to withdraw its eradication proposal. Instead it’s developing a new plan to control the swan population while considering regional differences and opponents’ concerns.

“There’s rationale … the DEC is scientifically justified,” said Amanda Rodewald, a director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who attended the Albany meeting. “They are aggressive not only against people, but native wildlife.”

DEC officials have said that if mute swans continue to proliferate, New York’s already endangered black tern could be the bird species eradicated. Black terns, once common from Niagara Falls to Watertown, have been pushed out of nearly half their nesting territory due in part to mute swan aggression, according to DEC reports.

In addition, Ms. Rodenwald said, the mute swan’s diet consists mainly of submerged aquatic vegetation, so they can clear ecosystems of important resources and discharge waste that further degrades water quality.

Bill Ketzer of the ASPCA’s Northeast region, who also traveled to Albany, said the DEC’s data doesn’t justify any swan cull.

“Regardless of whether they are indigenous to the United States or not, we were simply not comfortable with the agency’s admitted inability to thoroughly quantify mute swan productivity, migration and survival rates,” he said. He called research on the black tern and aquatic vegetation “incomplete and inconclusive.”

Swan management efforts are underway across the Northeast; Maryland conducted a cull from 1999 to 2010 that reduced local mute swan populations from an estimated 4,000 birds to just 200.

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