By Hugh Raffkes, The New York Times, February 17, 2014
|Mute swans in New York|
THE Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing to kill New York State’s entire population of free-ranging mute swans, those graceful white water birds long treasured as symbols of romance and fidelity. New Yorkers have until Feb. 21 to submit responses to a plan that calls for the removal by 2025 of the estimated 2,200 birds by methods that could include shooting, gassing, decapitation and egg addling.
Mute swans — so called because they’re not generally vocal, their most arresting sound being the beating of their wings — arrived in New York from Europe in the late 19th century, imported as aristocratic decoration for country estates. They adapted with ease and soon spread to public lands, where they were embraced for their beauty and as evidence of environmental health. Only in recent decades, as conservationists’ preoccupation with the geographical origins of species has intensified, have these immigrants with established communities on Long Island, in the Hudson Valley and on Lake Ontario become perceived as a problem.
The decisive moment came in 2004, when the United States Congress, under pressure from an alliance of waterfowl hunters and conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy, revised the Migratory Bird Treaty Act specifically to withdraw protection from mute swans and other nonnative species. Wildlife managers see mute swans as an invasive species, whose year-round residence, wanton appetite for subaquatic vegetation and aggressive territoriality threaten unsuspecting humans, native wildfowl such as the black tern, and dwindling wetland habitat.
But many New Yorkers have a different view. After all, these are regal birds, protected in Europe and celebrated in myth, poetry and song. Many people share W. B. Yeats’s vision of them as “mysterious, beautiful” creatures that “delight men’s eyes,” and they feel grateful for the otherworldly serenity that a mating pair or, even better, a snow-white flock can bring to the neighborhood pond in this age of municipal austerity.
Mute swans are defensive, not aggressive, their advocates say. If people carelessly encroach on their nests and young, they should expect to be unequivocally rebuffed. If the birds have an appetite for subaquatic vegetation, it may have local effects, but as they compose about half of 1 percent of New York’s more than 400,000 waterfowl, the impact on the state’s ecosystems is minor. And if, as the state claims but has difficulty demonstrating, mute swans really displace New York’s native birds, there should be a debate about the criteria used to value one species over another.
The state’s management plan is based on a D.E.C. study that produced some markedly inconclusive science. The threat from New York’s swans appears largely speculative: The study’s authors base their assumptions on programs to control growing numbers of mute swans in Michigan and the Chesapeake Bay, yet as the report itself shows, the birds’ populations in New York State are relatively small and currently either steady or in decline. It’s hard to resist concluding that the startling plan to eliminate the swans statewide is a case of bureaucratic overreach. Swan lovers are unlikely to be placated by the proposal to license small numbers of clipped birds on private lands.
We live on a planet where not only are the fates of all species profoundly entwined, but where, one way or another, all plants, animals and natural phenomena have been touched by our often heavy human hands. What’s more, we’ve turned out to be unreliable managers of nature, allowing our interventions to be driven by interest groups and underwritten by unholy compromises. We have swerved from paradigm to paradigm as we rewrite our models of natural processes according to contemporary fashion: Even now, for example, we struggle to determine how best to use fire in our forests, and how to cope with poorly conceived biological controls like the harlequin ladybird, a nonnative species introduced in America to tackle aphids that has displaced indigenous ladybugs.
There’s no question that species designated as nonnative can affect our ecosystems, sometimes changing them in ways that are expensive and undesirable. Dramatic examples abound — zebra mussels, cane toads, kudzu. But as more and more research is demonstrating, “nonnative” is an ideological grab bag of a category whose members are varied in their impacts and diverse in their contributions.
Nonnative species may be beneficial, rather than harmful. They may also be well integrated into their environment, particularly if, like the mute swan and the honeybee — another European transplant, brought here in the early 17th century — they have been resident in their host ecosystems for a substantial amount of time.
Indeed, given the limited scale of their impact, it’s difficult to imagine that mute swans would be considered a nuisance if they were also considered native. Under these conditions, we should carefully examine the evidence offered by New York State in support of its plan and consider whether it is adequate to condemn a much-loved species and allow its wholesale killing.
There’s a larger issue here. The real environmental problems faced by New York State are created not by birds, but by people. In the nearly 150 years that the mute swan has been among us, it has witnessed a radical decline in the extent of the state’s wildlife habitat and in the quality of its water and soil. The loss of wetlands has slowed and even reversed since the low point of the 1970s, but splintering habitat, sea-level rise, legislative loopholes, untreated sewage discharge and contaminated runoff from agriculture, and adjacent development continue to threaten these vital ecosystems.
Because of their limited diet, mute swans are a sentinel species, concentrating contaminants in their livers and revealing the presence of chemical toxicities in fresh water. Rather than eliminating swans, we should pay attention to their struggle to survive and what it can tell us about the state of our state.
Hugh Raffles, a professor of anthropology at the New School, is the author, most recently, of “Insectopedia.”