February 17, 2013

Mute swans: talk about the good, bad and ugly


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

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