February 17, 2013

Mute swans: talk about the good, bad and ugly

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — About 10 years ago two mute swans spent the month of January at the Westport Boat Launch.

I haven’t seen any since then until Bob Dill, a lake skater, recently posted a photo of a mute swan he saw while skating from the Van Everest fishing access in January. Van Everest is about 12 miles due east of Plattsburgh on the Vermont shore.

Mute swans combine the good, the bad and the ugly in bird behavior. They were introduced to North America from Europe in the 1800s as ornamental birds for their beauty in gardens, parks and ponds (the good). However wildlife managers and conservation agencies now consider them unwelcome due to the proliferation of their numbers and their impact on wild, native species. New York state has an estimated 3,000 mute swans, most of which live in the Long Island area.

Swans live in shallow water where they eat submerged vegetation. Some reports credit them with providing food for other waterfowl that don’t reach the depths swans can. Other reports disparage them for pulling up more than they eat and disrupting vulnerable food webs that fish rely on (the bad).

They do not typically overwinter in northern areas but the irregular formation of ice has been providing plenty of open water. The swan pictured didn’t appear to be injured so was perhaps just waiting out a cold spell until the ice reopened.

Mute swans are big birds. Adults weigh 20 to 30 pounds but can still fly long distances under the power of their seven-foot wingspans. They mate for life and are very often seen in pairs. They have been known to live as long as 30 years. The classic heart-shaped posture of two swans is part of their display during mating season. Facing one another they touch bill-to-bill and breast-to-breast.

Mute swans prefer habitat along low shore edges. Their nesting range is similar to that of loons. Because mute swans are extremely territorial, they will not share shorelines and are violently aggressive toward other waterfowl during nesting and brood-rearing periods. Cases of swans attacking children as well as boaters in kayaks have been reported in multiple states (the ugly).

Snapping turtles prey on young swans but adult swans have few predators. Allowing natural enemies to control the population is not effective.

In states where swans have threatened ecosystems or people, measures to reduce the population have been authorized by wildlife agencies. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act once protected mute swans but in 2005 they were deemed non-native and were unlisted for federal protection.

However DEC reports, “mute swans are protected by the New York State Environmental Conservation Law. Therefore, swans, as well as their nests and eggs, may not be handled or harmed without authorization from DEC.”

Surprisingly, mute swans are still available for purchase in the United States. One ad mentions tame pairs that will “eat right out of your hand.” The price ranges from $750 a pair for baby swans (called cygnets) up to $1,500 a pair for adult breeding pairs. As pretty as they may be, the intentional introduction of mute swans to northern New York would likely not be good news for local loons, ducks, geese or other shoreline nesting birds.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at