Serene & Peaceful? Baloney!
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
In human terms, the swan is commonly associated with peace and serenity. But, in one case, nothing could be further from the truth.
A Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) floats across a small municipal pond in Denver, Colorado. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow / NATUREGRAPHS)
What could be more tranquil than the sight of a glistening white swan with its elegant neck bowed back into a graceful S-curve, gliding effortlessly—almost floating—across the mirror-still surface of a pond? Watching several swans swimming together, it’s easy to understand where Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky derived the magnificent creative vision for his mesmerizing Swan Lake ballet. But in the wilds of nature, tranquillity is the last thing on the mind of one swan species. Pound-for-pound, mute swans are one of the most aggressive and competitively successful bird species in the world.
Mute swans are indigenous to Europe and Asia, where for centuries they were celebrated in art and legend and prized by the wealthy as status symbols. Imported into the United States from Europe for display in public zoos and private garden ponds in the late 1800s, these birds soon escaped and established multiple wild populations.
Now more than seven thousand mute swans occupy coastal and freshwater habitats along the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire to Florida, the Great Lakes, Washington State, southern Ontario, and British Columbia. Weighing twenty-five to thirty pounds and measuring five feet in length with eight-foot wingspans, adult mute swans are one of our largest waterfowl species. Plus, since they have no natural predators, they often live up to seven years in the wild. As a result, anytime they find their way into small bodies of water—often municipal ponds in city parks—they quickly become demon-tyrants, brutally killing smaller native waterfowl and aggressively driving them out of the ponds altogether. These feathered ogres sometimes attack and injure children and family pets, even going after adult humans who venture too close to the shoreline during nesting season.
Mute swans are also highly disruptive to the natural estuarine ecology of coastal areas. Voracious feeders, adult birds typically consume eight pounds of habitat-rich submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) each day. The resulting decrease in these critically important SAV beds leads to the loss of tiny nursery fish, baby crabs, and even freshly born seahorses that depend on the wild seagrass beds for escape and resting cover.
Until 2005, mute swans were protected under the blanket coverage provided by the federal 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Now considered a nuisance species, these swans can be controlled by everything from shooting with firearms and live-trapping to egg addling (shaking eggs in the nest to destroy the embryos), visual harassment (using scarecrows), sterilization, and capture/relocation.
I should point out here that all swans are not bad. Two swan species native to North America do not harm natural ecosystems. Both trumpeter swans and tundra swans are wild, wonderful, and revered components of our native waterfowl populations. The key giveaway for identification of these three swan species is that both trumpeter and tundra swans have black bills while the mute swan has a bright orange bill.
So remember, when you see “seven swans a-swimming”—if they have black bills, it’s okay to ooh and aah. But if they have orange bills, stay alert!
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.