Advocate makes case for mute swan

ON THE BAY

SOS: Save Our Swans, a coalition of residents in eight states, is opposed to controlling the mute swan population.

April 27, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ALL THE WAY from Connecticut, Kathryn Burton came, flying to BWI and driving to Salisbury, just to spend an hour covering my dining room table with papers and photos to make her case.

She is president of Save Our Swans (SOS), a loose coalition of residents in eight states, including Maryland, who see a conspiracy among hunters, environmentalists and government to demonize and destroy the mute swan.

Orange-billed mute swans, unlike the black-billed tundra swans that migrate back to Alaska each March, reside year round on the Chesapeake.

Their growing numbers, appetite for the bay's struggling underwater grasses, and potential nesting conflicts with other, hard-pressed species, have Maryland considering plans to reduce or stabilize the number of mute swans.

Though I'm a certified anti-mute propagandist in SOS' view, Burton said she was glad for the opportunity to be heard.

Animal rights advocates almost always face an uphill battle and must take their shots wherever they can. I've found them to be a mixed bag, depending on the issue, alternately regarding them with admiration and horror.

I believe that extending fuller regard for the welfare of animals is a necessary progression for a civilized society.

Animal rights advocates have caused long-overdue reforms -- for example, of abuses in the way modern factory farming treats poultry and livestock.

Alternately, some of them can get so focused and emotional about a single species they ignore the context in which it co-exists with other living things.

Burton makes one point beyond argument -- that the major cause of the bay's catastrophic grass losses is human pollution.

They did not decline because of mute swan depredation. Nor would eliminating mute swans entirely, without also reducing pollution, bring about the widespread recovery we seek.

But that's no reason to let mute swans grow unchecked while awaiting results of pollution control programs that will take decades.

The swans are well documented to feed heavily on the remaining grass beds, including ones newly planted in recovery efforts. Wintering tundra swans eat grasses, too, but not during the crucial springtime flowering, seeding and growing stages.

The latter species fits with the ecosystem, and the former doesn't.

And that "fit" is really the crux of the controversy.

Conventional wisdom, which Burton challenges, holds the mute swan is an "exotic" species, native to Asia but introduced to this country from England a century or more ago to grace the ponds of estates and public parks.

The Chesapeake flock sprang from two breeding pairs that escaped from a Talbot County estate during high tides in a 1962 nor'easter.

By the mid-1990s, bay waterfowl aerial surveys put the mute swans in Maryland at 2,750. They are now estimated at 4,000, and could hit 20,000 in the next decade, wildlife managers say.

Burton thinks mute swans were always here, native to the Eastern United States and along the Chesapeake. They were likely hunted to extermination in early Colonial times, much like another early bay species, the trumpeter swan, she says.

As evidence, she notes mute swan fossils unearthed in Oregon that are 9,500 to 12,000 years old. (They have a breastbone distinctive from other swans.)

She exhibits a Xerox copy of a 1590 engraving that accompanied early bay naturalist John White's reports on the abundance of "wilde ducks, swannes and other fowles."

And she has found an 1872 Currier and Ives print entitled "Haunts of the Wild Swan -- Carroll Island, Chesapeake Bay."

All of this is interesting, but way short of overturning the mainstream of evidence that mute swans are non-natives to the Chesapeake.

Oregon, site of the fossil find, is a ways from here, and not all that far from parts of Asia where mutes are native.

The Currier and Ives print clearly depicts mute swans, but in it, tiny Carroll Island, just east of the Key Bridge, looks more like Maine wilderness, casting doubt on the artist's accuracy.

Similarly, the 1590s engraving could be a mute swan, but it could as well be a trumpeter swan or a tundra swan or maybe a goose.

Burton and SOS believe what really underlies mute swan control efforts is an unholy alliance, "all about money from hunting licenses," involving groups from the Audubon Society to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

She notes plans on the bay and elsewhere to reintroduce the long-vanished trumpeter swan, which still exists in Alaska. Game agencies want to get rid of the mute swans to make room for the trumpeters, she says; then, we will be overrun with trumpeters and declare hunting seasons on them.

That's impossible to disprove but hard to swallow. The chief advocate of returning trumpeters to the bay is William Sladen, a respected ornithologist who has written a paper called "Why Swans Should Not Be Hunted."

It is not clear how mute swans have to be removed for trumpeters to have room, since plans are to establish a migratory flight of trumpeters. They would fly north to nest, like the tundra swans.

The fate of the mute swan here can't be decided primarily on emotions about big, graceful white birds or on anti-hunting ideology, although both will undoubtedly play a role. Mainly, the state's decision has to be based on what's right for restoring the Chesapeake ecosystem, about what fits and what doesn't.

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