Volume XI, Issue 33 ~ August 14-20, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Squawking about Squaws and Swans

The only four letter word you can’t say to a girl these days is girl.
— Anonymous

What and where is the line in determining the boundaries of political correctness in these times? Pardon me if even asking such a question goes beyond those boundaries. One can’t be sure of what’s what anymore.

This came to mind the other day when I read the Department of Natural Resources’ proposals for upcoming waterfowl seasons. Missing from the list again was a variety of duck popular among the small band of shooters that participates in the official Sea Duck Zones in Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast.

Perhaps I’d better rephrase that. The duck wasn’t missing, but its common name was. This relatively small duck with a wingspan of less than 30 inches is listed under a politically correct moniker by the department in conformity with birders on a national and international level.

Among sea ducks, the noisy old squaw has become the long-tailed duck. Obviously, old squaw is of late considered demeaning, though it was the traditional name given these fowl by Native Americans presumably because the species is the noisiest of all waterfowl. It reminded the hunters way back when of their jabbering wives and mothers.

The Redskins remain the Redskins, the Braves the Braves, the Indians the Indians, but the old squaw has become the long-tailed duck because of the drake’s tail, which matches that description. I guess the other common and regional names for the species weren’t considered politically correct either: Granny, old wife, scolder, squaw, singing duck or siwash.

So much for political correctness.

You Can Shoot Swans — But Not Hunt Them
But something else is missing from the list of waterfowl available to hunters this year, and unquestionably it’s for the best — though a few of the more vocal shooters are grumbling. Their gripe is that DNR is remiss in not considering inclusion of mute swans among waterfowl that can be legally hunted in Maryland.

Talk about opening a can of worms. The mute swan question is among the most controversial of issues currently facing the department. It ranks up there with the black bear problem in Western Maryland.

As I write, probably on its very way from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service headquarters in Washington to Annapolis, is authorization for DNR to cull 3,000 mute swans from Maryland flocks over the next decade. But at this time — and hopefully for much longer to come — the culling won’t be done by the average hunter. This rankles some who think they deserve the opportunity.

Methinks they’re not thinking the whole issue through. Methinks also those who oppose all culling of mute swans are not making judgment based on facts and common sense. Somewhere in the middle is the sensible and appropriate response, which DNR is taking. If the can of worms is to be reopened, the background is appropriate. Let’s take a look.

The Case Against Mutes
Some basics: Maryland is the home of approximately 3,620 mute swans; in eight states along the coast there are a bit more than 12,500. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife study indicates over the coming 10 years, Maryland’s flock should be reduced to 500 and the coastal flock to a total of 4,700, where it stood until a dramatic population explosion in the mid ’80s.

Why cull the flocks? Mute swans are big. It is calculated each one consumes about a ton and a half of Bay grasses each year. By the end of the decade, if their growing numbers are not addressed, collectively they would eat 30,000 tons a year. That’s a lot more Bay grass than DNR and its volunteers can replenish in “re-vegetation” efforts.

Also, beautiful as mute swans are, they are aggressive and intimidate native birds, sometimes driving them away, other times killing their chicks. The mute swan is not a native bird. The first in our wild were five that escaped from a private residence in 1962. Of late, environmental conditions have been accommodating, and it’s figured they are capable of doubling their population every four years.

So what do we do? We need not be reminded of the critical issue of Bay grasses and the roles they play in the overall health of the Bay. The more mute swans, the more of the grasses that will be consumed. That’s why earlier this year a hunt was initiated in Maryland. But it was soon stopped (after 128 birds were taken) as the overall question came under review by Fish and Wildlife, from which permits must be obtained.

After a lawsuit and environmental assessment, Fish and Wildlife decided that culling should be resumed for environmental reasons. In some states, the Service is considering plans to allow hunting seasons to control populations.

Another legal bird on the list sparks interest in some hunters. On the flip side, they wouldn’t get hunting for at least two years, which is the usual time required for preparation of environmental impact statements. So the current policy of DNR sharpshooters gets a head start on a solution to the problem.

Let the Experts Handle this Hot Potato
In facing the culling challenge, the DNR shooters are aware of the worst trouble spots and can concentrate on them, and at times not in accordance with traditional waterfowling seasons. To proceed via the regulatory season route would result in a quagmire of rules — plus opening the door to the possibility of some fully protected tundra swans being mistaken for mutes.

In addition, hark back to 1971, when then wildlife director Ralph Bitely only suggested that consideration might be appropriate for a whistling swan (as tundras were then called) season in Maryland. Public reaction was volatile, and though North Carolina and Virginia subsequently went that route on a highly restricted basis, the subject has not been brought up again hereabouts.

Maryland hunters face enough hostility without wading into the mute swan brouhaha. They can’t match the DNR mobile program to address problem areas at the best times, and there aren’t enough fowl involved to add much hunting opportunity.

Realistically, the shooting of mute swans would more or less be incidental to traditional Maryland waterfowl hunting. A shooter would bag one that came on the scene as he was rigged for and targeting other species. That, of course, would be an inefficient approach to a serious problem.

The bottom line is the removal of mute swans is not a hunting issue. Instead it is an issue of what must be done about the population explosion of the species to help get restoration of Bay grasses on track.

The mute swan is not a practical bird to hunt. Successful removal of target numbers can be best accomplished by trained personnel who are within the department and who can be assigned to problem areas at times when the birds are more vulnerable to “surgical removal” efforts without risk of mortality among tundra swans. It’s as simple as that. Enough said …



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Last updated August 14, 2003 @ 1:17am