|Speak up on Mute Swans
By Sharon Brewer
Near the Route 2 bridge spanning the South River, a small group of majestic mute swans has taken up residence. It is hard to imagine that such a tranquil sight could menace Chesapeake Bay. But that's exactly what some biologists are warning.
Based on recommendations of a task force appointed by Gov. Parris Glendening, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will decide the fate of these elegant birds. They may be moved to a refuge far away; they may be killed.
Mute swans - which are distinguished from native, winter-visiting tundra swans by the orange crown at the base of their bills - are new to Chesapeake Country. In 1962, five escaped from the collection of a wealthy landowner's estate along the Miles River in Talbot County. In the almost 40 years since that great escape, their population has spread Baywide to nearly 4,000. If left unchecked, some scientists believe their numbers could balloon to catastrophic proportions.
In many ways, it's a problem of scope. Weighing up to 25 pounds with a wing span of nearly seven feet, these Eurasia natives are now the largest birds in Maryland. Adult males can eat up to eight pounds of underwater plants a day. It's that appetite for submerged aquatic vegetation, SAVs as the grasses are called, that has caused worry about the big birds.
Mute swans pull up plants by the roots and use their feet to loosen grasses to feed their young. This destructive foraging is one worry. Another is that if mute swans ate all the submerged grasses, other Bay creatures - fish, invertebrates and shellfish including the blue crab - would have no home. A third is that a Bay without grasses would be an eroding, oxygen-starved environment.
On the South River, some of those fears have come true. Mute swans have twice destroyed saltmarsh cordgrass planted to increase wetlands and improve water quality along the highly developed shoreline.
The fairy-tale image of these royal swans makes it difficult to see them as environmental marauders. But many Bay residents see them as just that.
"They're beautiful and very destructive creatures that are no more natural in Bay Country than rhinos or giraffes," said environmentalist Joe Browder of Fairhaven. "Their impact on the habitat causes displacement of other species and makes it difficult for native birds to survive."
But not all the complaints are lodged against the swans. In 1998, private landowners were authorized by DNR to control the mute swan populations on their property by limited shooting. Public outcry over the killing of these beautiful birds moved the governor to ban further shootings and appoint the task force.
As Audrey Scharmen wrote this year in Bay Weekly, "An environmental 'task force' is deciding the fate of the mute swans,. whose numbers have increased, as humans' have, in the 20 years I have lived here on this shore. No matter how beautiful, there simply are too many. So say those who know about such things."
Susan Hagood, a member of the mute swan task force, agrees that the swans have been made scapegoats. "SAVs would not be vulnerable if we had not destroyed the habitat," said Hagood. "In comparison, the impact from mute swans is negligible."
Biologists typically worry about non-natives. Over the last 50 years the decline of many native species - thus species diversity - can be linked to invasive exotic species.
To the argument that mute swans are invaders, Ontario biologist Barry Kent McKay rebuts: "The argument that they are not native is a biased one, mounted by people who have no problem with brown trout, ring-necked pheasants and other non-native species that can be fished or hunted."
On January 31, the Mute Swan Task Force sent its recommendations to DNR. In essence, areas where the swans had done ecological damage - including Maryland's lower Eastern Shore and the South River bridge - would be designated "swan-free zones." In those zones, Mute swans could be excluded by non-lethal measures such as egg addling or relocation. Killing the birds would be a last resort. Criteria defining critical areas would be developed by DNR.
So far more than 800 people have opened the report on the web. You can, too, at www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife. Many of those readers responded with their opinions. With over 100 responses in and more coming, public comments are evenly divided for and against, says DNR's Edith Thompson. "It's important to know what people want," she says.
A record of public comment will be included in the task force report for DNR Secretary Sarah Taylor-Rogers.
You have until March 1 to voice your opinions on the life-and-death controversy over mute swans. Write Mute Swan Management Plan, MD DNR, 580 Taylor Ave., E-1, Annapolis, MD 21401. Fax 410/260-8595.