State to shoot 1,500 mute swans to help rid bay of a nuisance

DNR to kill nearly half of `big, aggressive' birds

April 22, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland natural resources officials plan to shoot 1,500 mute swans - almost half the state's population of the majestic bird. While the swans are beautiful, biologists say they're also a nuisance.

The swans, imported from Asia and Europe in the 1800s, weigh up to 25 pounds and eat about 10 million pounds of Chesapeake Bay grasses, which are vital for water quality, scientists say.

The Department of Natural Resources has received a federal permit to shoot up to 1,500 of the estimated 3,600 swans. The hunt is planned for the Eastern Shore counties, where most of the birds live, by the end of the year.

Officials say Maryland's mute swan population --- which began expanding when five escaped from a Talbot County farm in 1962 - has grown to a point where reducing it has become a necessity. Many of the swans are due to turn about 3 years of age, which means they will be old enough to breed and could multiply extensively if the state doesn't act.

"Our best experts tell us if we don't act now, we will have missed a critical opportunity, and we'll have a huge number of these animals on our hands," said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of habitat conservation for the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Heritage Service.

But the shooting plan prompted complaints from the bird's fans.

"The state really doesn't know so much about this bird, which makes me question why they're doing this," said Patrick Hornberger, who enjoys the swans that live on Island Creek near his Trappe home.

But Gerald Winegrad, a vice president of the American Bird Conservancy and former state senator who has mute swans nesting outside his home near Annapolis, said that he supports shooting the swans because it will save other birds.

He said the swans have driven out both common and rare indigenous birds on the bay. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they drove the only known breeding colonies of least terns and black skimmers out of Dorchester County. Both species are highly valued by conservationists.

"They're just big, aggressive birds that aren't indigenous to this area and don't belong here," Winegrad said of the mute swans. He said he expects public protests because of the swan's graceful beauty.

"They're nice-looking birds, but the problem is that they just don't belong here," he said.

McKnight said the hunt will be conducted only by DNR personnel. Most of the shooting will be in public parks and wildlife management areas.

The birds will be shot on private land only with the owner's permission, he said.

McKnight said the shooting will probably be conducted by two teams working from boats, in the coming months, although no specific date has been set.

"It's not going to be full-time, every single day," he said.

Property owners who want to keep swans on their land may obtain state and federal permits, he said. "We will work and cooperate with private landowners wherever possible," he said.

The state has been trying to reduce the mute swan population for years, by sending volunteers out to spread vegetable oil on their eggs, a process known as "addling" because it keeps the eggs from hatching.

If the eggs are smashed, scientists say, the birds will lay replacements. But mute swans will sit on addled eggs and not lay more.

DNR's federal permit to shoot the birds was issued Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The permit, which has been required to harvest swans since 2001, also will allow DNR to addle the eggs in 350 nests.

But Winegrad said a study of a 20-year egg-addling program in Rhode Island showed that it didn't work. The swan's numbers increased fivefold over the 20 years.

"The egg addling is not enough, you're never going to get all the nest sites," he said.

This will not be the first time mute swans have been shot - a half-dozen were killed in 1997 on Barren Island in the Chesapeake Bay by federal and state biologists.

McKnight said the program needs to be reviewed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was briefed on it yesterday.

The orange-beaked birds, natives of Asia, were originally imported to Europe because of their beauty and brought to the United States in the 1800s. Most were kept captive at the homes of the wealthy but in 1962, five escaped from a Talbot County estate during a storm.

Since then, the numbers of mute swans have swelled because they are both long-lived and prolific. They have a 20-year life span and a female may produce up to 30 offspring.

Unlike the black-beaked tundra swan, which migrates to the bay only during the winter months, mute swans are year-round residents, making them a full-time consumers of the bay's underwater grasses.

"The biggest problem with the mute is they can eat a lot," said William Sladen, a retired Johns Hopkins ecology professor.

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