Two mute swans hauled themselves out of the water at the East Hampton Nature Trail on Monday, stretching their wings wide with a flap that scattered the ducks surrounding handfuls of feed just spread by a visitor, a display of dominance that established them at the top of the flock.
The swans, a non-native invasive species here, were, of course, unaware of a recent proposal by state wildlife officials to eliminate them in the New York State by 2025.
Mute swans, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, display aggressive behavior toward people, destroy submerged aquatic vegetation, pollute waters with coliform from their fecal matter, and displace native wildlife species, such as the indigenous tundra swan and other waterfowl. In addition, says the D.E.C., they pose “potential hazards to aviation.”
The adult mute swan is marked by its orange bill with a black knob on top, unlike the native tundra swan, or less common trumpeter swan, both of which have black bills and lack the knob.
Under a management plan being considered by the D.E.C., mute swans could be shot, captured and euthanized, or sterilized, and their eggs and nests destroyed. Feeding mute swans would be prohibited, and a swan-hunting season would be considered.
The agency is taking public comments on the plan through Feb. 21.
The news of the state agency’s intent has further stirred up animal activists already roused by the Long Island Farm Bureau’s plan for an East End deer cull using sharpshooters to kill up to 3,000 deer in an effort to reduce deer damage to crops, collisions with vehicles, and the spread of tick-borne diseases. A large rally against the cull took place in East Hampton on Saturday.
Like the deer cull, the mute swan elimination proposal has prompted online petitions in opposition, including one at Change.org, as well as a spate of shocked and furious comments on Facebook by local residents and others across the state.
Several mention the swan pair that inhabits Town Pond, where the birth of cygnets is carefully observed by many each year, painting them as an integral part of East Hampton.
Mute swans were brought to North America from Eurasia in the late 1800s for ornamental purposes — under the assumption, perhaps, that their gracefully curved necks and regal stature would be lovely additions to lawns, bays, and ponds.
Around 1910, according to the D.E.C., some mute swans escaped or were released from captivity. Since then, the free-ranging population of mute swans in New York has grown to approximately 2,200 birds statewide, with separate populations on Long Island, in the lower Hudson Valley, and the Lake Ontario region.
They can be found in coastal bays, marshes, and wetlands, and on inland lakes, rivers, and ponds, and are largely non-migratory, though some do move south during severe winter weather.
The Atlantic Flyway Council, a collaborative agency comprising representatives from various agencies that manage migratory waterfowl along the Atlantic Seaboard, established a goal of reducing the number of mute swans in New York to 500 by last year.
Instead, the D.E.C. said in its draft management plan, the population has expanded in size and distribution.
“In the absence of human intervention, the number of free-ranging mute swans in New York is likely to increase until the species is common throughout most of the state,” the D.EC. draft says.
However, the D.E.C. also says that while the upstate population of mute swans near Lake Ontario has “increased dramatically during the last decade,” the populations here and in the Hudson Valley “seemed to have stabilized” over that same period.
The Flyway Council’s population control goal has been endorsed by several wildlife conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy, according to the D.E.C.
Anyone who has visited a duck pond and been accosted by a sizeable swan impatient to get to a handful of old bread can attest to the “aggressive” label. It is not only prompted by food; swans will attack humans, especially small children, if they get too close to their nests or young.
But less well known is the swans’ effect on aquatic plants. Instead of nibbling on parts of the plants, they remove the entire plant when foraging, eliminating a food source for other waterfowl.
With only a couple of pairs of nesting mute swans here, Kim Shaw, East Hampton Town’s director of natural resources, said this week that no complaints about them had been received by residents, and that the degree of potential environmental damage posed was likely not as great here as in other parts of the state. There has been no inventory “to see if there’s been significant environmental damage,” she said.
Nonetheless, she said, they do have an impact on water quality and aquatic plants. And, she said, “I do recognize them as invasive” — a species that could “outcompete other types of swans and birds.”
“We do have more of a problem with resident geese,” Ms. Shaw commented. Some population-control techniques proposed by the D.E.C. for swans — such as shaking eggs, puncturing them, or treating them with oil to prevent hatching — are similar to those already used on geese, she said.
A New York mute swan management policy adopted in 1993 prohibited the release of captive mute swans into the wild, allowed the swans to be removed from lands overseen by the State Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources, and in other cases allowed permits to be issued for swan control on a site-specific basis.
The new plan, which would allow some swans to be kept in captivity under state license, is similar to those in numerous other states including Maryland, Virginia, and Michigan.
Bill Crain, the executive director of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, which is among a group of plaintiffs suing to stop the deer cull, said in an e-mail yesterday that “the plan to exterminate the mute swans in the state is appalling.”
“People expect our official wildlife agencies to be humane stewards, not destroyers of life. From what I know, the swans don’t seek to harm humans, only to defend their young when they feel their young are threatened. As to the swans’ damage to the aquatic environment, it’s nothing compared to what we humans inflict through pollution and runoff, as well as overdevelopment. Instead of mass killing, the D.E.C. should give thoughtful study to humane alternatives.”
“On a broad level,” Mr. Crain added, “we all know that deadly violence is a critical problem in our society. I don’t believe it can be separated from the way we treat other living beings.”
Comments on the draft mute swan plan may be submitted in writing through Feb. 21 to the New York State D.E.C. Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany 12233, or e-mailed to fwwildlf@gw. dec.state.ny.us.