Mute Swans Cheer Loudly for DEC’s Turnabout

Mute Swan Cartoon By Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Two items were in the news last week about some of the gentle creatures that paddle around in our local ponds. The first involves ducks, particularly black ducks. Toward the end of the February freeze, there was some fear among Southampton Town officials that the duck population was suffering, unable to find food because of all the ponds being frozen.

As Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst told Newsday, it was feared that the ducks might not be strong enough to do their yearly migration, which could be a disaster for them. There is apparently a time-frame window in which this occurs, and it is fast approaching. As a result, the town authorized the expenditure of $500 for a ton-and-a-half of corn feed, which they asked town trustees, the Marine Maintenance Division of the Town and the bay constables to help distribute to citizens living adjacent to the ponds to go out and feed to the ducks. It seems to have helped. And also, with the thaw, the ducks now have access to many ponds, with the few still iced-over melting soon. So we’ve helped out, at least some.

“The ducks in Southampton are part of the ecological chain,” Throne-Holst said to Newsday. “The duck industry is part of our heritage here. This was deemed as potential for a real catastrophe for the species.”

The second thing that happened last week among pond paddlers involved mute swans. It was a triumph for American democracy, because a terrible fate was proposed for that species and the general public rose up, sent letters, demonstrated, spoke up, met with others and objected.

Here was a perfect example of how the general public can intervene and change things by making just that sort of noise. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has reconsidered.

Fourteen months ago, the New York DEC issued a directive, “Management Plan for Mute Swans in New York,” which was not really about managing swans at all. It was about killing them, killing every last mute swan in the state by December 2025. The DEC argued that these beautiful, graceful creatures in our ponds were giant pests, an invasive creature brought over from Belgium as an amusement in the 1880s to paddle majestically around in ponds in public parks, and it just hasn’t worked out. The swans sometimes menace the general public. They defecate in the ponds, fouling them, if you will pardon the pun. They fornicate and reproduce at a great rate, and their ever-increasing numbers often force other creatures out of the ponds they occupy.

And so they are considered a menace, and as foreigners, Belgians, they have no rights, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech or anything else. They are illegals, creatures without proper papers. And, as a result, they would now be carefully done away with over the next few years, and by 2025—with swans that might paddle or fly in from neighboring states also suffering this fate—finally get the message and as a result understand that they might be allowed elsewhere, but not in New York. I might note, in this directive there is no mention of deporting them, sending them back to where they came from, which in a certain sense might be a more humane thing to do.

If there was a huge uproar about this from humans who care about mute swans, however, the mute swans themselves took this death sentence stoically. Not a single one of them spoke up to object to this DEC decree. But that is their custom, just to take things as they come, remaining mute about it.

This stoic acceptance was interpreted by some as further proof of the dignity and beauty of these mute swans. Then there were those who said the swans should at least stick up for themselves, and if they do not, why should we? But they do not. Last week, however, after much lobbying by concerned people all over the state writing their legislators and assemblymen, the DEC modified their directive. The modification was announced in a press release from State Senator Ken LaValle, the senator from our district, who crowed about how his office had led the charge to get this changed.

The DEC modification to this directive calls for re-locating mute swans “in certain circumstances.” Presently, the mute swans reside in this state on Long Island and up by the Canadian border near Lake Ontario, but nowhere else. Among the “certain circumstances” that could trigger relocation would be their forming new nests in new breeding grounds, particularly in tidal waters or ponds or streams elsewhere in the state, or if the swans, unprovoked, harassed people or their automobiles (pecking on tires, for example). If such triggers occur, “non-lethal” measures will be used, such as caging and re-releasing, egg relocating, the posting of signs alerting people to contact the DEC if they see a swan in a new pond where they have not been before, and so forth and so on. Basically it’s like in the old days, keeping the Indians on the reservations.

Mr. LaValle, speaking for the swans, since they can’t speak for themselves, wrote that although he thinks this is heading in the right direction, “Mute Swans should only be destroyed as the absolute last resort, and only when they are posing public danger. I look forward to a final plan, with proper management, that achieves these goals.”

In re-reading the modification document, I see no reference to killing the swans as before, but maybe there is a link between the new and the old that might allow that to happen in certain other circumstances.

The mute swans, we are told, are very grateful for the help given to them by a caring public, and if they could speak they would say “thank you.” But they can’t so they don’t. Their silence should not be considered bad manners. One should not hold their silence against them. Just a nod and a look and the quiet “mouthing” or “beaking” of the words “thank you” lets you know how really thankful they are, with our work getting the job at least partway done, according to Mr. LaValle.


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