A lamentation of swans

Beautiful intruder: Mute swan proliferation poses hard choices to protect bay habitat, species.

March 23, 2001

IS THE Chesapeake region facing a plague or a blessing of swans?

That difficult question troubles wildlife experts and laymen alike as they ponder how to deal with the wildly proliferating orange-beaked mute swans that threaten to overwhelm the bay and its native creatures.

Graceful in appearance, these imports from Asia -- the inspiration for Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" -- are voraciously devouring vital underwater grasses and threatening the survival of other rare birds.

After two years of study, a Maryland task force proposes creating "swan-free" zones to protect black skimmers, least terns, tundra swans (a native) and others that have been pushed out by these 25-pound bullies.

But the panel's list of nonlethal remedies offers limited hope for containing the year-round residents, who have grown from five swans that escaped an Eastern Shore estate in 1962 to more than 4,000 birds. At that rate, the bay's mute swan population could reach 20,000 in another decade.

Many people oppose killing the birds or even physically limiting their expansion. A public furor erupted four years ago when six mute swans were killed by wildlife managers because they destroyed the only Bay nesting site of threatened skimmers. But there's little chance of finding safe, welcome sites to relocate the swans, either.

The nutria, a large rodent imported from Argentina 50 years ago to raise for fur, provides a good basis for comparison. Trapping and shooting can't keep these swamp rats in check.

They illustrate how hard it is to "manage" an alien species once it takes hold in the wild. Wider use of "addling," or shaking, swan eggs in the nest to prevent hatching is needed. Shooting may be required to protect threatened species.

In medieval times, a collection of swans was called a lamentation, a poignantly apt term for this present-day ecological quandary.

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