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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Mute and Trumpeter: A Tale of Two Swans

Published 01/16/13

In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the seventh installment, written by Barry.

The swans you often see in parks, zoos and estates are characterized by curved necks, orange beaks and black knobs at the base of the beak, as well as the habit of ostentatiously fanning their wing feathers into great “sails” as they glide on the water’s surface, the epitome of avian elegance and natural grace. This species is called the mute swan, and is native to Eurasia, although other species who were very much like them were in North America in prehistoric times.

But around the late 19th century fashionable estate owners imported them, to add a stylish touch of class to their properties. Inevitably some of these birds got away, the first free ones noticed in Long Island, New York, where they began to breed in the wild. Their subsequent spread across much of the continent, augmented by escapes from other captive sources, was well documented and continues to unfold.

And in the United States, they are being needlessly slaughtered in huge numbers by state wildlife agencies. To understand how something so beautiful and innocuous is so reviled by wildlife managers one has to know that there are two swan species native to North America, the rather widely spread tundra swan (formerly known as the whistling swan) and the larger trumpeter swan, which was hunted nearly to extinction. Confirmed historical nesting records of trumpeters are from forested wilderness regions of northwestern North America, while the tundra nests across the Arctic and subarctic, above the treeline.

Both species migrate extensively through North America, and the trumpeter historically reached Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coastline in the winter, as well as points south in the West. They were mostly gone before we really knew much about where they occurred.

The mute swan is seen as “alien,” and accused of competing with native wildlife, pulling up aquatic plants that would otherwise feed native wildlife, chasing native waterfowl from nesting territories and befouling the urban parks and wetlands it often occupies. Wildlife managers are willfully hypocritical in their approach to “exotic” species, killing them when it suits their agenda to do so, but happily dumping all manner of exotics (or turning a blind eye to others doing so) that can be hunted or fished.

The fact is, the ecological niche predominately occupied by mute swans over here is similar to the one occupied in Eurasia, including the same species, or ones that are very similar. If pintails, teal, snipe and so on wiped out in Eurasia, why are similar or identical species at risk over here? That question is rarely asked and never answered.

Meanwhile, there is a concerted effort to “reintroduce” the trumpeter swan as a breeding bird in eastern North America. Based on the historical record I doubt it ever was, but that hardly matters. But again, when you ask the wildlife management agencies why trumpeter swans are good and mute swans are bad, when they are so similar in their habits, there is no answer beyond the assertion that the trumpeter swans are a native species.

I don’t dislike either species, but I see a double-standard (more so in the United States; so far in Canada we have not actively killed mute swans, but in the United States they’ve killed off many thousands of them) in how they are regarded, and I think that we have planted so much European vegetation (or it has occurred by accident) and so “Europeanized” temperate eastern North America, that the mute swan is a “better fit,” ecologically, than the trumpeter swan. Many of the animal and plants they associate with in this region also occur, or are very similar to species that occur, in Eurasia, where the mute is native.

I would have preferred that mute swans had not been brought to North America, but I see no sense in killing them on the grounds that, as “alien” species, they cause all sorts of problems, and then putting in trumpeter swans, who do the exact same things mute swans are accused of doing (eating aquatic vegetation, chasing other waterfowl species from their nesting territories, and so on), plus they are a lot noisier — not a problem in “wilderness,” but likely to become a problem in urban areas where so many of them appear.

And who is to say that mute swans might not have re-colonized the Americas on their own (probably via the West Coast, through Alaska) just as other Eurasian waterfowl species have done within relatively recent times (Eurasian wigeon, for example, but we are seeing smews and tufted ducks, plus several gull species who have either colonized North America within living memory, or seem to be in the process of doing so).

Meanwhile, the birds they release tend not to migrate. Historically trumpeter swans did winter along the U.S. coast, in Chesapeake Bay and points south, but the ones being released seem not to be inclined to follow historical migration routes, and the habitat that we have here is, at any rate, extremely altered from what it would have been back when trumpeter swans did occur in the east.

Mute swans are not very migratory. Trumpeter swans are, although the ones released tend not to be, often dying in winter cold rather than flying south. But while I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I think the attraction of the trumpeter is its potential to become a game bird. Americans already hunt tundra swans, and because hunters can’t tell them apart, have already allowed a legal kill of them in some Western states. Mutes are too tame, but have to go to make room for the trumpeters. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but neither does anything else.

Let’s not be mute in defending all swans from those who enjoy killing them; let’s trumpet our opposition.

Blogging off,

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