To some swans are a serene fixture of the Connecticut landscape, to others the mute swan is an invasive nuisance causing havoc to the native ecosystem.
“People think they are amazing, and beautiful and they are, but they are a problem,” said Judy Preston, the Long Island Sound Study Outreach Program Coordinator at the University of Connecticut. “They eat the emergent vegetation. They rip it up by the roots putting incredible pressure on native plants and they displace native waterfowl from our coves.”
Today, an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 mute swans nest in the state’s inland and coastal wetlands, up from the just 143 documented in 1963.
“Like all invasive species, whether plants or animals, the problem with them is that they take over habitat that, in the swans’ case, native birds would otherwise be using,” said Tom Anderson, communications director for the Connecticut Audubon Society. “But, what to do about them is a difficult position. I think that it’s something that we don’t have any more of a solution for than anybody else.”
That’s the predicament, at least for Connecticut.
In 2004, mute swans lost their federal protection and today six states – including New York – have swan removal policies that are aimed at reducing swan populations. Connecticut is not one of them.
A controversy with a history
Whether or not to manage the swan population is not a new controversy.
According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, “public opinion in Connecticut, as measured through an independently conducted survey in the late 1990s, is in favor of swan control to protect our state’s natural ecosystems.”
The department was, for a time, agitating swan eggs in an attempt to prevent the cygnets from hatching and added to the population.
However, Roger Tory Peterson — a renowned ornithologist and Old Lyme resident — at the time was against the policy.
In an interview with the New York Times in the late 1990s he said of the practice:
“I take a dim view. We do not have a native swan in this area. They’re beautiful things, and to destroy beautiful things, whether they’re exotic or not – – I’m a little bit of a rebel in that respect, when it comes to exotics. I enjoy mute swans, a lot of people do, and they’re not competing with another swan.”
His opinion slowly won out despite an increasing awareness of the harms of invasive species to a native landscape.
“Because of Roger Tory Peterson’s standing in this neck of the woods, when he said it was not a good idea to do anything about the swans, people agreed and some regulatory protection was granted them,” Preston said.
Peterson told the New York Times the damages that swans may cause to the natural environment were worth the risk. Thirty years later, those damages are becoming ever more apparent, Preston said.
“Last year there was this huge raft of algae in South Cove caused by the swans and harming everything else,” Preston said. “If I had a home right on North or South Cove, I’d want them gone.”
Clearly Preston is not alone.
At the start of May, two swans were found dead and apparently brutally beaten near Whalebone Cove in Hadlyme. An investigation was carried out days later. According to the DEEP, no one was caught or fined for the incident.
“DEEP Environmental Conservation Officer Matthew Heath investigated this case, in coordination with agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their investigation found no evidence that would point to nefarious activity causing the swans’ deaths at Whale Bone Cove,” said Will Healey, the spokesperson for department. “The investigation has been closed, pending any new pertinent information. Those with any information are asked to contact DEEP’s Emergency Dispatch line, at 860-424-3333.”
A moral challenge
While some residents may or may not be taking the situation into their own hands, Connecticut lawmakers have found it difficult to put a policy to remove the swans in place. In fact, in 2012 the Connecticut state legislature increased the fine individuals will receive if they are caught hunting or attacking swans to $250.
“I think that it is always a different situation when you talk about invasive species that are plants versus invasive species that are animals,” Anderson said in regards to putting a removal program in place for swans like there is for hydrilla and water chestnut. “It’s hard to swallow the solution.”
For now, DEEP has no plans of putting a new policy in place, but Preston and others more concerned about the welfare of the native environment are interested the possible solutions, including hunting or trapping permits that are also used to control other populations, including deer.
“Let’s take the pressure off the natural environment,” says Preston.