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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Last year there was a lot of buzz in Niagara County amongst animal lovers who were incensed over plans by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to wipe out the state’s entire population of mute swans.

Mute swans aren't from around here — but they're growing in number. 
Property owners along Wilson Harbor were especially mad as Twelve-Mile Creek had become home to more than a dozen of the birds. To the east, there has been a pair or two of swans that have called Eighteenmile Creek home through the years, much to the delight of kayakers and canoeists who frequent Olcott.

“How dare one kill such a beautiful bird?” seemed to be the general sentiment.

A threat to the environment 

The DEC saw — and still sees — mute swans as a threat to the environment.

That, they are.

They are not native to North America and are therefore an invasive species. As we’ve discovered with starlings and house sparrows, avian invasives as just as troublesome as other unwelcome guests like Japanese beetles or the gypsy moth.

Mute swans were introduced to the continent in the late 1800s as a means to beautify ponds and lakes, especially those owned by the rich along the East Coast. They quickly spread throughout the northeast and Great Lakes. Over a 30 year period, it was determined that the Great Lakes population of these giants grew by at least 10% a year, doubling every 8 years. There are now 2,200 of them in the Empire State alone.

The DEC considers them a scourge of aquatic vegetation, especially on the East Coast where they have especially large colonies. An adult mute swan can consume 8 pounds of aquatic weeds and seagrass per day, while uprooting much more in the process. This has proven to be dangerous to already-strained populations of threatened birds like black ducks, canvasbacks and brants.

Mute swans are also incredibly territorial, exerting really aggressive behavior on native waterfowl, driving them from their habitats. One need only take a small watercraft up Eighteenmile Creek to observe this – the adult swans will shoo away ducks and rails and chase them for great distances. Thus, those native birds won’t nest in the creek’s gorge which, as it is, doesn’t have a lot of available nesting sites.

The DEC’s original plans

Last year the DEC introduced a swan management plan that would have seen them remove mute swans from New York waters by exterminating them. They planned to capture and/or kill every one of the 2,000-plus swans — adults and cygnets alike.

To animal lovers, that seemed over-the-top, even inhumane, but as the DEC’s wildlife management officials and many birders and conservationists who supported the plan had said at the time, extermination was the only way to control the creatures and make the environment right again.

No one would have that, though.

Public comment poured in at rates typically unseen by the DEC, and the agency shelved the idea, promising to go back to the drawing board.

The DEC’s new plans

Earlier this week, the DEC issued the revised draft, one that doesn’t feature mass killings.

Notable changes to the plan include:
  1. A revised goal focused on minimizing swan impacts, rather than eliminating all free-flying swans
  2. A regional approach that recognizes the distinct differences in history, status, impacts and management opportunities for mute swans between downstate and upstate regions of New York
  3. A new strategy to permit municipalities to keep swans at local parks and other settings pursuant to local swan management plans, as long as certain conditions are met
  4. A commitment to full consideration of non-lethal techniques, including egg-oiling and placement of swans in possession of persons licensed by DEC, except where immediate removal of swans is necessary to protect public health or safety
The revised management plan also describes nine strategies that DEC believes are necessary to achieve the plan goal. Key strategies include public education and outreach to inform people about the history and impacts of mute swans in New York; banning the importation, commercial trade, propagation and release of mute swans; allowing municipalities to develop local mute swan management plans in cooperation with DEC; and continued efforts by DEC to reduce wild mute swan populations, especially here in upstate New York where they did not occur before 1980.

You can download the DEC’s 16-page document as a PDF here:

Public comment

Everyone with some interest in the issue, supporters and naysayers alike, should share their thoughts with the DEC regarding the revised management plan. Comments on the revised draft mute swan plan may be submitted in writing through April 24 to: NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or by e-mail to (please type "Swan Plan" in the subject line).

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he admires tundra swans but not mute swans ... a topic for another column. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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